El Cajon’s McAlister Institute stages fourth annual Walk for Sobriety awareness event

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No one promised that the road to recovery from addiction would have no stormy stretches. But those who have struggled to become clean and sober know that recovering, even through dark days, beats the alternatives. And participants in the fourth annual Walk for Sobriety, staged by the McAlister Institute, were reminded of that fact as they stepped off amid unseasonal thundershowers on the morning of Saturday, July 18.

No one promised that the road to recovery from addiction would have no stormy stretches. But those who have struggled to become clean and sober know that recovering, even through dark days, beats the alternatives. And participants in the fourth annual Walk for Sobriety, staged by the McAlister Institute, were reminded of that fact as they stepped off amid unseasonal thundershowers on the morning of Saturday, July 18.

The walk was held along a 5K “fun run” route at Liberty Station in Point Loma, with the intent of raising money and awareness to support those who are maintaining sobriety in the midst of a drug-infused popular culture. Event organizer Marisa Varond spoke, with affection warming her voice, as she praised her grandmother, Jeanne McAlister, the founder of the El Cajon-based McAlister Institute, who has been sober for over 58 years. McAlister since then has dedicated her renewed life to providing generous, comprehensive support services to those battling to achieve and maintain sobriety.

“I have great admiration for my grandmother,” Varond stated simply. “She is such an example!”

The more than 500 people who signed up for the walk all seemed to agree. Varond noted that last year’s event raised $55,000. The goal for this year’s fundraising was to bring in $75,000.

“The members of the committee board have been extremely generous. They have raised over $20,000 so far,” Varond continued. “And we hope this event increases awareness of the courage, bravery and gratitude of the survivors of addictions who have achieved sobriety. The work it takes to become sober and stay sober is often swept under the rug. This is one place to celebrate and acknowledge it.”

Brenda McGowan of La Mesa was there for the third year to walk in the event. She had been attending on behalf of her 23-year-old son, Lance. This was Lance’s first time walking alongside his mother. On walk day, he had been clean and sober for 567 days. Both served on the event committee. “This event shows you how much hope you should have,” McGowan said of her son’s path to recovery. “It is going to be okay.” 

McGowan told her family’s story. “Lance was on drugs, all kinds, you name it,” she said. “He went to jail. He was in a bad place in his life.” She described the pain that family members experience as a loved one spirals downward into deeper addiction-fueled troubles. “But with McAlister and our belief in God, we know that miracles happen. My best advice to other families is never, ever give up hope.”

Shelly DeForrest agreed, from the other side of the relationship for families coping with addiction. “I put my kids through hell,” the Logan Heights resident said. Her drugs of enticement were methamphetamines and alcohol. At the event, DeForrest was celebrating 1,757 days of being clean and sober. Her four children are 23, 22, and 14-year-old twins. She now has a two-year-old grandson, and this was her second Walk for Sobriety, her first time serving on the event committee. “This year has been amazing,” DeForrest said. “I have done arm work, leg work, whatever was needed to help put this event on. Just the amount of support we have gotten from others has been incredible. And we addicts can break the stigma. My advice to others caught in addiction is don’t give up hope, because you are worth it.”

Local celebrity Tommy Sablan, who emceed event’s opening ceremonies, noted his gratitude for the McAlister Institute as a “graduate” of the organization’s recovery program. He has been at all four annual sobriety walks. Local band Devotion set the festive mood with lively background music. Members of the McAlister family addressed the attendees before the walk kicked off. The following day was to be Jeanne McAlister’s 83rd birthday, but she requested no “Happy Birthday” serenade from the crowd, opting instead to lead the group assembled in reciting the “Serenity Prayer.”

Marisa Varond and her grandmother, McAlister, both teared up on stage as Varond spoke about the “selflessness” of the family’s matriarch and inspiration. McAlister said, “When I became sober, I thought I would never party again. But this is my party today.”

Two of the day’s walkers were celebrating 317 days of being sober from alcohol addiction. They talked about the importance of family, as the McAlister clan had done, in making a “new life” after alcoholism. Michelle Gray, of downtown San Diego, and Sarah Artaz, of El Cajon, met in the McAlister programs and struck up a kinship in the shelter program for women and children, which is called “Kiva.” They became “best friends” and “new family” while there. They are looking forward to sobriety day number 365, for honoring their one-year anniversary of being sober, with a celebration together.

Gray recounted, “I had been drinking for years. But then last summer, I lost my job. I started drinking a lot. I had seizures. My doctor got me to the McAlister Institute. I was in detox for 14 days, then in Kiva for four months.” She went on, “It saved my life. I was able to rekindle with my daughter. You can’t go back to where you were. The circumstances you were in will trap you into going back to drinking.” Sarah Artaz concurred about the importance of her friendship with Gray and how much being able to keep her four-year-old daughter has meant.

Terrie Talmadge was counselor for the pair at Kiva. “These are awesome clients,” Talmadge said. “They are why we do what we do.” Talmadge has been working at the McAlister Institute for nearly a year. “The institute is great for new counselors,” Talmadge stated. “The experience counselors get is wonderful and fast. Jeanne is very supportive.”

The McAlister Institute offices are located at 1400 N. Johnson Avenue, Suite 101, in El Cajon. More information is available by phoning (619) 442-0277 or through online research at www.mcalisterinc.org. Since the first Walk for Sobriety in 2012, over 20,000 individuals and families who were caught in the cycle of addiction have been provided affordable, life-saving treatments. The institute is still seeking donors, and tax-deductible contributions go toward such support services as substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, life skills education, and vocational skills training.

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