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Addictions recovery leader sees the strength in sharing her story

Marsha Tabb has worked for eight years as a substance abuse counselor but never disclosed that she was a recovering alcoholic to her employers, co-workers or clients until she became program manager for Clubhouse Buffalo last year.

The Restoration Society operates the Clubhouse, a gathering place for those age 16 to 23 at risk for, or recovering from, addiction. The nonprofit group – founded more than four decades ago to serve those challenged by homelessness, addiction and mental illness – requires more than half of its board and staff to have faced those kinds of challenges themselves.

As a result, it's the kind of place you hear workers talking hopefully, and rarely negatively, about those they serve.

Tabb feared a backlash in previous workplaces from bosses and fellow employees if she shared her personal story. So they, and clients, never heard how she grew up in a home wracked by addiction. How she became a functional alcoholic with a good job. How she stopped drinking 10 years ago with help from God and others.

"It wasn't until I came here that I found my voice," she said last month in the Clubhouse, a basement space with a kitchen, snack bar and lounge at the Restoration Society headquarters in the University District.

The spot opened in late 2016. It is one of seven of its kind across New York, funded through a five-year, $250,000 grant through the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

Tabb oversees a staff of four, including full-time recovery coach Felix Williams, a part-time recovery coach and a part-time peer specialist.

"We try to retrain our customers to live life on life's terms," Williams said. "The Clubhouse is a small part of a bigger picture."

Felix Williams, left, a recovery coach with Clubhouse Buffalo, plays foosball with Teontay Holmes, 19, in the clubhouse digs at the Restoration Society Clubhouse in North Buffalo. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Teontay Holmes, 19, of Kenmore, is among those who find refuge here. He became homeless about two years ago and has returned to college to pursue a business management degree.

"The Clubhouse helps me maintain my success," Holmes said.

Tabb, 41, has two children, Jesse 23, and Mikayla, 13, and will marry her fiance, Brian West, in July.

Q: Can you talk a little more about the personal meaning of your transition?

Throughout the course of years of counseling, I would always hear, "You don't understand because you haven't been through this. My response would always be, "Everybody knows what it feels like to hurt." Once I came here, I realized how I have to be open and scream my story from the rooftops because people are hurting and can't see themselves getting to the side where I am. So I feel like it is my duty to give all the information, to be as transparent about myself as possible to possibly help other people.

Q: What are the Clubhouse hours and available activities?

We are open Monday through Friday from 3 to 9 p.m.; we have 3 to 5 p.m. designated for homework help. We also are open every first and third Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Activities vary and change daily. We might have an anger management group. It can be resume time. It can be creative writing. It can be an artistic activity or music activity. We have yoga, outdoor activities and sports, video games, board games and more. We have cooking classes and movie nights. There is meal prep every day. We try to have people involved in the kitchen every day. We also go off campus for activities like coffee crawls to Dunkin' Donuts or Grateful Grind. To have an atmosphere where they can get out and have a cup of coffee is important.

Q: What does a typical workweek look like for you?

Being new, I'm out of the office more than in the office. I'm making a lot of connections with community organizations.

Q: What connections have you made and what are you hoping to make?

Marsha Tabb, left, Clubhouse Buffalo program manager, chats with Nancy Singh CEO of the Restoration Society, and Kim Baugham, COO of the Society, in the society-based Clubhouse last month. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

We have connections with Open Buffalo, BestSelf, Prevention Focus. We have community mobilization coordination and we have Renaissance House and some of the treatment facilities. I'm trying to make a connection with any organization that services youth.

Support is one of the biggest things for people. Without being addicted, I feel alone at times. Where do you go when you need someone to talk to? Where do you go when you may not feel understood at home? Where do you go because you're bored? We want people to know this is the place. The best way to reach us is 832-2141, Ext. 217 or by email at mtabb@rsiwny.org. They can reach us through Facebook and Twitter, as well.

Q: How do you rebuild your life? What do you do with your time?

For one, when someone emerges from addiction their self-esteem is non-existent. They have to be cheered on that they can do this until they believe they can do this. The other part we're telling them is that people, places and things matter. If family members are using, the questions become, "How am I going to take myself away from my mother?" "How am I going to take myself away from my sister? We're best friends." It's going to make someone feel more isolated.

I came from the "hood." All I knew was hood life. I couldn't see anything beyond the people selling drugs, beyond the fights on the streets every day. It took me getting out of that environment and having supportive people in my life to ask, "Why can't I?"

Q: And that's why it's so critical to keep trying, right? Because now you can die from this much more easily.

Exactly. Some people still say addiction is not a disease, it's a person's choice. No one is interested in waking up daily and killing themselves and their family slowly. No one is choosing to inflict this pain on their children. It is truly a disease. People want help. They just don't know where it is or if they have the strength to do the work to get where they need to be.

Q: What are the key ingredients of recovery?

Be honest with yourself and others. Open-mindedness is important. Obviously, what you were doing in the past wasn’t working. You have to be willing to change and let the process run its course. We tend not to do that because we know everything, and no one can run our life better than us, but sometimes we run ourselves into brick walls. It’s not about running someone’s life, it’s about walking their journey with them as they navigate hurdles. You have to be willing to accept help from others. ... Building relationships is one of the most important things because when people struggle, when they fall, they can reach out.

Sometimes there are people who want to make the change but they don’t know the first step. It becomes overwhelming and they give up. The Clubhouse is going to support them no matter what. We are going to walk this journey with them. Yes, they are going to stumble. Yes, they are going to have issues. That is a part of life. But we are not going to turn our backs on them. We’re going to help them pick up, dust off and try a new route.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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