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What's Up Magazine

San Patrignano, A Recovery Program that Works

Jun 07, 2017 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Lisa Hillman

Last year my husband and I were privileged to visit one of the world’s most renowned recovery communities. This is a snapshot.

Imagine an idyllic community: 300 acres of green rolling hills overlooking the Adriatic in Central Italy. Everyone works. Everyone has a mentor. And more than 72 percent re-integrate successfully into society. Sound impossible?

Founded in 1978 by Vincenzo Muccioli, San Patrignano is home to some 1,300 young men and women who—according to its annual report—are “affected by social marginalization, in particular those suffering from drug addiction.” From its origins saving one, young addict, “SanPa” has blossomed into the world’s largest recovery center, attracting hundreds of people annually to its workshops. They come to ask, quite simply: how does SanPa do it?

The overwhelming sensation on arrival is one of tranquility. It’s like entering a college campus, only calmer, more orderly. Young men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, walk briskly, chattering quietly, heading off to any one of scores of buildings. They smile in greeting. Clothes, hair, faces are all scrubbed. There’s a shine about them. It’s the look of good health.

Functioning like an admissions office, the large administration building houses a first floor filled with computers that connect SanPa with the world. The majority of residents are Italian, but anyone anywhere can apply. Admission begins with a “demonstrated motivation to change,” followed by direct contact with SanPa or through a network of volunteer associations.

“We are a family and we live like a family, respecting and helping each other, with our mistakes and limits: nobody is perfect or feel superior to the others. We accept each other, without any judgment nor scale of value.” —Monica Barzanti, Head of International Relations

Unlike many centers, SanPa has no standard rehabilitation process, 12-step protocol, or required recovery time. The program is tailored to each individual. The majority stay for three years, but many stay longer. Each is assigned a mentor, someone who has lived at SanPa at least a year, as well as to a work group.

“One part of this program that not many people hear about is how much love, patience, and understanding from those who have been in the program longer for those who have just arrived. It is imperative to their regaining their confidence and finding the courage to confront such a long program...San Patrignano helped me to discover life.” —David, SanPa resident from Vancouver, Canada

SanPa believes that social interaction within the community, infused with work, training, study and sports, enables each person to regain the dignity, honesty, self-respect, and ability to thrive in society that addiction takes away. For the first year, at least, there is no Internet or cell phone use. Family interaction is limited. Re-entry into the world also is carefully monitored. Residents are encouraged to spend one or two weeks “home” and then return to SanPa to review their stay before a final departure, when they choose.

Another element that astounds outsiders is that it is free. SanPa accepts no money from those in the program or its family members, nor any government funding. This reinforces one of its essential values: that each person is responsible for and in control of his or her recovery. Each resident is expected not only to learn a trade or profession, but also to help SanPa remain self-sufficient by producing products or services. These account for 50 percent of the annual budget. The remaining comes from corporate donations, charity events, and other fundraising.

The products and services SanPa produces also are extraordinary. As one young resident said, “We don’t do anything unless we do it with excellence.” The list is as long as imagination and funding allow: hand-stamped wallpaper, fine furniture, fashion accessories, cologne, and even wine from its own vineyards. On site is a 400-herd cattle farm, a dairy that produces fresh ricotta and pecorino, a bakery, stables that house some of Europe’s finest stallions, a shelter to train therapy dogs, and even a top-ranked restaurant that seats 94 guests, all managed and run daily by SanPa residents, true testimony to the saving power of its love and philosophy.

When one young resident was asked if there were anything SanPa did not have the answer was, “Maybe a gym. But then I’d probably spend too much time there, and I get all the exercise I need just walking our hills.”

Buildings stretch across hills for acres. The centerpiece is the dining room, a modern facility with huge wooden beams arching over its high ceiling. At least once a day, the entire community gathers for a meal, typically at noon. Prepared and served by residents in white jackets and caps, it’s a four-course wonder, complete with foods grown or raised on campus. The community also houses a theater, a multi-purpose auditorium, classroom buildings, a three-story, 50-bed medical center, a dental clinic, and even a school for children of staff, all overseen by some 300 “collaborators” and more than 100 volunteers, many of them graduates of the program.

“In our eyes no young person with a drug problem has a hopeless incurable disease that they are doomed to live with until their death. Instead, we see them as unique, irreplaceable human beings full of talent and potential that they need to rediscover and learn to express.” —Annual Mission Report, 2010, p 34

At the end of a visit to San Patrignano, one takes away hope: at least somewhere in the world there is a “home” for a large community of addicts that works. One wonders why other recovery centers—especially in America—don’t replicate its model, or at least try.

If not now, when?

Lisa Hillman is the author of the newly-released memoir Secret No More, a story of hope for parents with an addicted child.