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Broken wings

Blue Monarch helps repair the lives of women recovering from addiction
Story and photos by Allison Morgan 3/25/2015

 

Inside the main house of Blue Monarch, a residential center for women who are recovering from addiction, residents gather around the kitchen table for study time. Clockwise from left are Whitney Cantillo and son Tristan, born after she entered the program; Gretchen Crowe; Cassie Jackson; Erin Crandall; Jaysenda Boyd; Samantha Byers; Ashley Stapleton; and Felicia Seagroves. The women and their children live here and in two other homes on the 50-acre campus in rural Coffee County.
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Ashley Stapleton knew she’d hit rock bottom.

Her methamphetamine addiction had taken over her life. The 24-year-old was homeless, helpless. She was sleeping outside in frigid temperatures, suffering from hypothermia.

She’d lost custody of her 2-year-old daughter, Maylee. She’d been in and out of rehab, in and out of jail.

“It was bad, and I was miserable,” Ashley says. “I knew I was going to die or go to prison. I needed to get clean, and I needed help to do that.”

Last November, she found that help at Blue Monarch, a long-term residential center in rural Coffee County for women recovering from addiction and abuse. Here, women like Ashley not only find a soft place to land. They’re also given the tools to get back up and thrive.

“It’s been everything to me,” says the Chattanooga native as she talks candidly about her experiences. “When I look in the mirror, I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I feel like I have purpose in this world now.”

On this clear, cold February afternoon, Ashley is anxiously anticipating a visit with her daughter and hopes to soon regain custody. Unlike most other addiction-treatment facilities, Blue Monarch will allow Maylee to live with her mother at the center, where founder and executive director Susan Binkley says the focus is both recovery and reconnection. Since the center opened in 2003, nearly 200 children have re-established relationships with their mothers who had lost custody.

“We realized early on that when a mom didn’t learn how to parent her children sober for the first time, then that could be the biggest relapse trigger of all,” Susan says. “We really started focusing more on what we do for the children and how we help women be effective mothers.”

Situated on 50 pastoral acres, Blue Monarch’s peaceful setting contrasts sharply with the turmoil its residents have experienced. For every story like Ashley’s, there are dozens more, each equally heartbreaking and heartwarming.

For example, there’s 27-year-old Corteney Jones, who’s raising three children — Kurstin, 8; Noah, 7; and Kelcee, 5 — while facing federal indictment for conspiracy to manufacture meth. Now, 10 months into the program, she says the transformation Blue Monarch has made in their lives is startling.

“I had to get rid of everything I’ve ever known except for my children because they deserve a chance at happiness,” says Corteney, a binge drug-user since age 15. “This is the most incredible place I’ve ever been. My kids are doing so well here. I’ve reconnected with them; I’m getting to know them as little people. When you’re on drugs, you don’t look at stuff like that. This beautiful place has given me an opportunity to know what real love is and to be happy with who we are and what we have, which is each other.”

Such life-changing experiences are only possible because of a life-changing dream Susan had nearly 20 years ago.

“In this dream, I was expected to read every page and detail of a thick book,” Susan says. “It was basically a business plan of how you put something like this together. When I woke up, I joked that I must have intercepted someone else’s dream. It didn’t have anything to do with my life.”

In 1998, she and husband Clay and their daughter, Mary Susan, moved from Williamson County to bluff-view property near Tracy City. Along the way, Susan noticed the old Grundy County High School building. She’d seen it years before but was surprised to recall that it had appeared in that powerful dream.

A couple of years later, they opened a bakery and coffee shop, The Blue Chair, in nearby Sewanee. Here, Susan began hearing terrifying stories from some of her female employees about abuse and addiction. Though she had no social work background, she began thinking of ways to help.

“I thought it would be awesome to set up a commercial kitchen and give jobs to these women who were struggling so much,” says Susan. “I realized it wouldn’t do any good just to give them a job; we’d need to provide services and maybe let them live there with their kids in a safe place. All of a sudden, it hit me that it was exactly what I’d dreamed about. I felt like that was what God was asking me to do.”

At first, Susan figured the center was destined to be located in the Grundy County High School building, which was now vacant. After several unsuccessful attempts to secure the building, she almost gave up. Then she heard about a local bed-and-breakfast that was for sale. The owners were moving to Israel and leaving it fully furnished. The big problem, though, was its $1 million price tag.

“I knew I wasn’t a qualified buyer, but I told them my whole story,” recalls Susan. “When I finished, the woman got tearful and said, ‘We always knew that God had asked us to build this place for someone else, and we always thought it would be for women who were hurting. We’re glad you finally showed up.’”

Susan knew acquiring the money was an issue, but that’s when the old high school came into play. Through her exploratory visits there, she’d met Madeline and Howell Adams, founders of the local Rotary Club, which met on site. Inspired by her idea, the couple generously offered to secure the loan and allow Blue Monarch to make the payments. Susan took possession of the property in April 2003, and the note was paid off in 2014.

In naming the new venture, Susan chose a butterfly for its symbolism of transformation and specifically the monarch because of its resilience. She added “blue” from the name of her café, which she sold in 2012.

“A monarch is special because it survives the winter when all the others die,” she says. “A monarch is fragile and yet so determined.”

Accommodating 10 to 12 families at a time, the sprawling Blue Monarch campus includes three main houses and a cottage for program graduates in a “transitional” phase.

“It’s a one- to two-year program, with a transitional program of 12 to 18 months, which is offered to everyone who graduates,” Susan explains. “Sometimes, they just need that extra time to gradually regain their freedom and privileges while still having accountability here.”

Women find Blue Monarch in different ways: court referrals, Department of Children’s Services, friends and family, churches, or others who have been through the program. Most are dealing with drug addiction in addition to other struggles such as alcohol abuse, poverty, imprisonment, domestic violence, and estranged relationships with their children. There’s no cost for the residents of Blue Monarch, which is mainly funded through donations and grants. When the women start earning an income, they contribute 10 percent while completing the program.

“We look for women who have a desire to change,” says Susan. “It’s a huge commitment to come here because they’re expected to change every single aspect of what they do. Many of them come from generations of dysfunction.”

Described as an “intensive, self-help program,” the Christian-based curriculum combines individual counseling and treatment with classes on parenting and life skills, anger management, budgeting, and work ethics as well as Bible study.

“The women have a really full day, structured like a work schedule,” Susan says. “They have to get their kids ready for daycare or school in the mornings and establish that routine. They have chores assigned to them and take turns cooking meals.”

The expectations and guidelines are stringent, and women can be dismissed for breaking the rules, being uncooperative, or violating safety. Susan says regular “family” meetings allow the residents to “hash out” any issues and learn how to resolve conflict in a healthy manner.

While the youngest woman has been 19 and the oldest 52, most are in their mid-20s. Children up to age 12 can live with their mothers, and older children are allowed to visit. The on-site children attend the local elementary school or day care facilities and receive their own curriculum of counseling, mentoring, and tutoring. Susan is also proud of the fact that 12 babies have been born while their mothers were at Blue Monarch.

“We had a reunion last year of the kids who lived with us the first year, and it was really powerful to hear them talk about their experiences,” says Susan. “They told us they wanted their kids and grandkids to live like they did here. That’s exactly what we’re hoping for. If we can change the perspective of the child, then we will be impacting future generations. We like to say we’re changing the family tree.”

Agriculture also plays an important role in Blue Monarch’s therapeutic approach. The center is home to a small herd of goats and a flock of exotic chickens, and residents are expected to help care for them. The benefits are numerous, emphasizes Susan, who purchases feed and other supplies from Coffee Farmers Cooperative in Manchester.

“Being on the farm provides an amazing atmosphere for children who have been through so many traumas,” says Susan. “They’re able chase goats, gather eggs, and run through the fields. These are activities moms and kids can do together, engaging them in a way they’ve never been before.”

Working with livestock also gauges the women’s sense of responsibility, which can factor into custody decisions, says Susan.

“Before we can tell a judge with confidence that a woman is prepared to care for her child, we observe how she takes care of our goats and chickens,” she explains. “It looks good if we can show that we trust her to take care of the animals properly.”

Admittedly, Susan says, not all women who come to Blue Monarch find success, but many do. A perfect example is former meth addict Dona Masters of Sparta, a graduate of the program who now runs Blue Monarch’s “Out of the Blue” granola kitchen in the basement of the main house.

The granola business, launched when Susan still operated her café, gives residents a chance to earn income while they’re in recovery and provides funds and awareness for Blue Monarch. The product is sold at local grocery stores, including Piggly-Wiggly and Kroger, as well as Whole Foods in Franklin, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

For Dona, working in the granola kitchen allows her to give something back to the program that has given her so much.

“I was in a 15-year meth addiction and went to jail several times,” says the 50-year-old grandmother of three. “Three years ago, I was caught with my son selling meth in a school zone. I knew I didn’t want that life anymore, but I didn’t know how to get out of it until I came to Blue Monarch. It’s just miraculous. I got clean, and I’m going to stay that way. I would like to encourage anyone, if you don’t think you can get out, you can. There’s a way.”

As Blue Monarch enters its 12th year, Susan says the program continues to grow and evolve. At first, the center only served surrounding counties but now accepts women from across Tennessee and other states as well.

“Over the past couple of years, it seems like we are finally reaping the benefits of all the hard work and hard lessons we’ve gone through in our first decade,” she says. “I feel like our program is stronger than it’s ever been, and the women and children who come here get a really, really rich experience.”

Fresh from the barn where she’d been caring for two newborn baby goats, Ashley beams as she brushes stray strands of hay from her flannel shirt and expresses what Blue Monarch has meant to her after the dangers and despair of a 10-year meth addiction:

“I have my life back,” she says. “I’ve never had support, and I feel like it’s a family unit here, with fun and healthy relationships I haven’t seen before. I love the chance to feed and take care of the animals, which makes me feel like I’m needed. And best of all, I finally get to be a mom, the way I’m supposed to be.”

To learn more, donate, or become involved with Blue Monarch, visit online at www.bluemonarch.org.

 
 
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