PYLESVILLE, Md. — Building relationships with animals is a common therapy. But one Maryland-based substance abuse rehabilitation home took it further, using their farm to instill routine and purpose and create a revenue stream to support recovery.
Char Hope Foundation, Inc. is a long-term, small-scale substance abuse rehab program that focuses on recovery first in order to help individuals rebuild their lives and find support.
Housed on a farm, residents learn about agriculture and do farm chores as part of their daily routine. Farm commodities are then sold to help support the Foundation, which is low-cost to those attending.
Char Hope was built on finding lost souls and helping bring them back. Derek Hopkins, founder and executive director, said he looked to the Bible and the story of the shepherd with his 100 sheep.
While moving the herd, one sheep got lost. The shepherd made the decision to leave the 99 to go and find the one.
“Obviously, it’s our job to go look for the lost ones and bring them back to the flock,” Hopkins said.
The number 99 is hidden in the organization’s logo to depict this story and the farm’s mission.
Derek Hopkins grew up a farm kid. His family had cattle, crops and race horses, and he was part of 4-H and FFA.
He went on to become an auctioneer before being elected register of wills for Harford County. On the side, he is a volunteer firefighter with the Whiteford and Bel Air departments.
Now, in addition to his day job and volunteerism, he is the executive director of Char Hope.
Being in the fire department, Hopkins saw a number of overdoses. He also knew of friends and family members struggling with addiction.
He knew he wanted to help.
It started when he invited a family friend to stay with him and his wife for the holidays after he couldn’t get into the rehabilitation programs he was hoping for. The friend ended up living with the Hopkins for a year.
“I did everything totally wrong,” Hopkins said. “I mean he lived with us for almost a year, but I was more worried about paying his debts back to society — getting him to a job, getting him all this and all that — and really, really, really never focused on recovery first.”
While Hopkins ultimately wasn’t able to help his friend for the long term, that was the beginning of Char Hope.
“That’s when I sat back, and I realized how much the farm meant to him, how much the animals meant to him was everything, so I knew I had that part right. I just needed to correct my recovery part,” Hopkins said.
The first business plan was drafted in 2014, but things didn’t take off as Hopkins had imagined. Finally, he talked to Robin Keener of Homecoming Project, Inc. who helped set up their first success — a women’s recovery program based on homesteading.
Residents of Char Hope sign up to live at the house for a least a year but ultimately until they are ready to leave. The days are built around structure.
Tonya Adams, a Char Hope alumni and current program director, explained the daily schedule that begins at 6:55 a.m. Wake up includes morning meditation followed by farm chores, education groups, lunch, life skills groups, dinner prep and chores.
Residents work through levels, gaining privileges as they move up. At level two, they can secure a job outside the house. Transportation is provided to get them there.
The house has a family-style dinner each evening, on a rotating schedule of who cooks. Part of the program is learning basic care — cooking, cleaning and hygiene.
“We want them coming here with an open mind and just taking care of themselves and learning how to live. Some people come here don’t even know how to bathe right. They don’t know how to take care of their hygiene,” Hopkins said.
The farm was added to the rehabilitation home in 2018 when Char Hope was able to rent the land and move the facility into the farm house. The women ran the majority of the farm, setting the homesteading framework aside, but a partnership with local farmers took care of any field crop plantings and harvesting.
Then, this year, in August, the Foundation was able to open a men’s house where, for now, five men can join the program. The addition meant moving the women to another house nearby.
Some activities — meditations, classes and farm chores — are coed, but men and women are meant to keep apart to discourage relationships. Other classes and meetings are separate.
And changes to the women’s program are in the works. While they did manage the farm successfully, Hopkins said some of the chores were difficult for some women.
So he is looking to add in a commercial kitchen to refocus on homesteading. Here, the women would be able to make “cottage law” items, like breads and jams.
Some farm products are kept for general consumption, but others are sold at auction to help fund the program. Likewise, the cottage law items can be sold, but Hopkins cannot yet say where.
The first 12 weeks of an individual’s stay at Char Hope are funded through a scholarship. Then, they pay $150 a week, which can be funded by outside jobs.
In addition to raising funds through the farm, the Foundation holds an annual fundraiser the first Saturday in June. They also receive some grant money and donations from the community and alumni.
Hopkins would like to see the Foundation become completely self-sustaining, financially. He sources food deals to buy in bulk and sell to the community.
At the rate he sells them, Char Hope can still turn a profit, but individuals buying are also getting a better deal than grocery stores. He’d like to build relationships with large food producers to buy off their salvage items in order to sell them for another form of income.
When somebody signs up to stay at Char Hope, they are signing on for a lifetime.
After graduation, in whatever amount of time it takes, Char Hope checks in with their alumni. If they relapse, they’re encouraged to work the 12 Step program, built by Alcoholics Anonymous, again for a year.
After that year, they can write a letter of reinstatement, Hopkins said, and staff will review and accept them back into the program.
Hopkins recounted Father Martin Ashley, founder of the well-known Ashley Addition Treatment Center. “‘When it comes to recovery, some days people need a tune up, just like everybody else.’ That resonated with me, and it stuck in my head,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins described the program as strict.
Residents don’t have phones or cars. They also have to sign in and out when they leave, which is only permissible with passes.
Adams, the current program director, came to Char Hope in August 2020, hoping her stay would get her out of legal trouble. The judge was willing to push her sentencing until after she had completed the program.
But people around her were encouraging her to push beyond simply her legal problems. After watching others put in the effort and change their lives, she wanted to as well.
“Slowly but surely with that and putting the work in, things started to turn around for me, and then my mind started to change a little bit more, like, ‘Wow, this isn’t so bad,’” Adams said. “And then I built a huge network of support.”
The day after graduation, Adams went for sentencing, expecting to receive four years in prison. A number of people, with Char Hope and outside of it, spoke on her behalf. She was ultimately put on house arrest and court ordered to stay at Char Hope.
The house offered her a new outlook on life. Having been raised around drugs and alcohol, Adams adopted the “fast life” as an adult.
“I didn’t really know a different way until I came out here and started being taught that there’s other ways to live life,” Adams said.
Adams served as the house manager for the duration of her house arrest and for a period of time afterwards. In March, she moved off the property for the first time in almost three years.
But in August, with the beginning of the men’s house, a new job opened, and Adams was offered to come back to Char Hope.
Char Hope resident, Graham, took a different approach to finding his way to the Foundation. He spent six years trying to get sober, even going, at one point, two years and nine months clean.
On Sept. 5, he had enough of the short-term rehabilitation centers and relapses, though. He admitted to himself he needed the help.
“I kept trying to do it alone, get sober alone. I would go to (AA) meetings to show face, to keep people from calling me, checking on me and stuff, but then I would go and drink right when I got out of the meeting, and it was starting to affect my job and every aspect of my life, really,” Graham said.
Graham knew Christian Harris, an educator with Char Hope, from a previous treatment house they had both attended. Sept. 5, he called him, having heard about the new men’s program.
A bed had opened up that day. Graham came to the center on Sept. 6. Having worked with horses from a young age, Graham took to the farm work quickly.
Residents recently took a field trip to a horse farm. While there, each person was asked to choose the horse they related to the most.
Graham chose an old mare who kept running from him.
“The lady was like, ‘Why’d you pick her?’ and I was like, ‘Because I can’t get her.’ She’s like, ‘What does that mean?’ It’s like I can’t get my recovery.” Graham said.
One of Graham’s goals for his time with Char Hope is to make it through the 12 Steps. He admitted he has a tendency to run every time he gets to step nine — making amends.
He’d also like to help others who are struggling with addiction, which is Step 12.
“They tell us that our primary purpose is to stay sober and help another struggling alcoholic,” Graham said. “Hopefully, after this, I can get back and help other people.”
For those seeking substance abuse help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can be reached at 800-662-4357. To learn more about Char Hope, visit charhope.org.