When Kamala Tewee first heard about Medicine Wheel Recovery Services in June of 2017, her life was in chaos.
Tewee was living from couch to couch and struggling with addiction. She had never been able to successfully parent any of her five children. Previous efforts had led to recovery, but she had recently relapsed. Around that time, Tewee found out she was pregnant again.
A practicing Shaker, Tewee met Clarissa, the daughter of Tana Howtopat, Co-executive Director of Medicine Wheel, at a church meeting. Clarissa told Tewee about the program, and the two kept in touch with each other for more than a year.
“I’d call her and tell her what I was going through,” Tewee said. “She finally asked me if I wanted to change my life around, and I said yes, and she picked me up. I had a really rough road. I believe the light came when I met Clarissa and I came here. She has helped me get to where I am today.”
Tewee is one of 697 people who have been through the Medicine Wheel program since it began in 2016. According to the organization’s mission statement, the program helps participants move toward “sustainable recovery from addictions and mental health issues.”
Co-executive Directors Tana Howtopat and Pam Councell founded the nonprofit after having been addiction counselors themselves. While Howtopat said both she and Councell worked with admirable organizations previously, they wanted to design a facility where they could do treatment their way, in a program that combined best practices.
“We have taken information that we’ve learned at different places and taken the best of everything and tried to incorporate it here,” Howtopat said.
How the program works
Medicine Wheel employs ten people, who serve as counselors or mentors.
The program treats people who have the Oregon Health Plan open card, also known as fee-for-service, which provides health care to eligible Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
According to Howtopat, the program is set up to be approximately six months, although some patients stay longer and some stay shorter.
On a patient’s first visit, he or she will partake in an initial assessment with a counselor who will create a Service Plan for the patient. All patients will take part in at least one support group a day, and sometimes two or three support groups a day. The first 30 days of a patient’s stay, he or she will also take part in urinalysis to monitor his or her progress. Patients also meet with their individual counselors once a week, and their mental health providers once a week.
Some participants also reside in one of the five transition houses the facility provides. At each of these houses there is a certified recovery mentor, who assists residents with everything they need to successfully recover.
“A lot of people come to us and they don’t have IDs, they don’t have birth certificates,” Howtopat said. “They haven’t been to a doctor in a long time. They need dental work done. So the mentors are the ones who work with them to get all these basic needs met.”
Residents also start working toward attaining permanent housing by entering their names on multiple different housing lists, as well as creating plans for what they envision their lives will look like when they return to sober living.
As the program progresses, the level of care the patients have will steadily lower. Patients do this as they show they can maintain abstinence from substances, follow the rules of the house and that they are engaged in the recovery community and making progress in recovery, according to Howtopat.
Eventually, patients will graduate from services, and return to living life as a sober person.
Anyone who is struggling with addiction and has the Oregon Health Plan open card is welcome to apply for the facility. It requires calling Medicine Wheel, taking part in the screening and seeing if they meet the minimum qualifications.
“We try to get people in right away,” Howtopat said. “If somebody comes in and they say, ‘I am ready for treatment, I want to stop using,’ we try to get them right then, because tomorrow they may not be ready again.”
Barely over three years old, Medicine Wheel has already seen some expansions to its program. One of the additions has been the Mustang House, which opened earlier this year. The transition house is a four-bedroom house especially for single mothers in the program.
Howtopat said the program saw a need for that house specifically because Medicine Wheel was receiving multiple single mothers. Some had children, and some had had their children taken away from them after their child’s birth.
Before the creation of that particular house, the women were scattered at the four other houses in the program. The co-executive directors said they knew it would be better if the mothers could all congregate together and receive the support they needed in a single place.
The new house is also larger, and provides more room for cribs, high chairs and other items for infants and toddlers.
“So far, multiple of the women who have come here have gotten their children back,” Howtopat said.
Because all of the patients have the Oregon Health Plan open card, the facility bills their patients for services through their health insurance.
For all the other services, such as furnishing their homes, Medicine Wheel gets creative. Howtopat said there are three main sources of reliable funding they use. One of those is donations through certain community members who know about the facility. They also watch sites such as Columbia County Buy, Sell, Trade. Another source of funding is through Martha Olmstead, who often networks on the facility’s behalf to get a lot of their needs met.
The program also gets one federal grant that is linked to re-entry and the criminal justice system. They receive another grant that helps in providing housing assistance to veterans with mental health needs.
Howtopat said receiving grants can be a challenge though, because grantors are less likely to give new nonprofits grants until they establish history.
“So we’ve had that [challenge], but we have been blessed with grants,” Howtopat said.
At her most recent support group meeting, Tewee sat at a table with around 20 other program participants, holding her baby daughter in her lap.
“I have six kids, and this is the first kid I have parented,” she said. “I have struggled a lot and this is the first time I parented with the help of Medicine Wheel.”
Tewee has now graduated from the program and is living on her own, in the new affordable apartments in St. Helens that Community Action Team (CAT) opened a few months ago. Tewee credits her success to the support found in the program.
“We have a Medicine Wheel page on Facebook, and if anyone needs help we put that we need someone to talk to,” Tewee said, adding support can come to members 24/7. “They don’t ever not support us.”
Tewee also said members of the program help out in the community any way they can, such as by picking up trash all over town as a way to give back to the community for the ways they have been helped before.
“When I came here I did not know if I was going to make it,” Tewee said. “With help, I’ve learned that I’m a great mom and I can do it. I’m here in my own apartment with my baby and she’s fine. They say that support is what keeps you sober. And that’s true.”