First Step Services, LLC: Our Goal: Get People Well

First Step Services
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After several DWI arrests that almost led to jail time in the 1970s and ’80s, Henry Tarkington finally got the message.

“From that point on, things really began to change in my life,” he said. Tarkington was picking up odd jobs as a handyman when a friend suggested he could make a little extra money working as a substance abuse worker at a local alcoholism treatment center stocking snacks for patients and similar chores.

When several counselors quit, he became a counselor. “I didn’t seek the job, I was drafted.” At that time, Tarkington had only completed one class in substance abuse counseling at a community college.

Tarkington went on to acquire degrees and credentials in his field, and ultimately founded First Step Services, LLC to meet the demand for outpatient drug and alcohol treatment services. Today, there are 33 employees at offices in Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Garner.

Make Better Choices People convicted of DWI are required to get an assessment and complete any substance abuse treatment or education program recommendations in order to get their license reinstated. The person can select a treatment center or their attorney can recommend one. First Step Services is the second largest provider of these programs in the state. Most of their programs are covered under health insurance.

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“We want attorneys to know that we genuinely care about these people; we’re not just running a mill. Attorneys are working with their clients to help them in the best way possible. We share that commitment,” said substance abuse counselor, Holly Turbyfill.

The state of North Carolina has created a series of programs with specific guidelines to meet the requirements set by the court and that are offered at treatment centers like First Step Services.

First time offenders are often enrolled in First Step’s ADETS/Prime for Life program, which runs for 16 hours spread out for five days. “We’re not telling people to stop drinking, that’s a choice. But we’re hoping that they do get the message from the class to make better choices,” said substance abuse counselor, Raymond Cox. ADETS aims to help people learn to reduce their risks of alcohol and drug related problems throughout life, and improve their overall wellness.

Clients are assigned to a treatment program based on the severity of their problems. The short-term treatment is a program that runs 20-30 hours over no less than 30 days aimed at developing an understanding of the risks and problems caused by substance abuse. Longer treatment is for people who clearly show a pattern of use that suggests that they are at a high risk of developing a more serious substance abuse problem. The 40 to 60 hour program runs a minimum of 60 days. The 90-hour program, spread out over a minimum of 90 days, is for people with symptoms of a significant problem with substances.

In addition to group counseling, First Step Services also has a large team of clinicians who can provide individual sessions and family counseling to address issues associated with their use. First Step Services even provides online counseling statewide to those unable to attend traditional programs. The clinicians are skilled in connecting with clients and their families, both from professional and personal experience. Many of the staff bring firsthand knowledge to First Step, having overcome their own drug and alcohol issues or dealt with substance abuse in their family.

“Before a client is placed in any of the programs, we assess the person and tailor the program to their needs,” said associate clinical director, Sara Shook-Rosen.

“When a person comes in for an assessment, I try to be as open and honest as possible and make them feel warm and welcomed,” Cox said. “That’s the key. To let people know we are here for them.”

We Don’t Label People “We don’t label people as an addict or alcoholic. We do not get people in group and tell them they are all alcoholics or addicts. People don’t respond well to that,” said Tarkington.

“We look at their strengths and build on that so they don’t ever have to do this again,” added Shook-Rosen. “Our ultimate goal is to get people well in the least restrictive way that we can.”

First Step’s treatment programs use a motivational enhancement model. “We ask clients what they want out of life? That, to me, is the most important question we start with,” explained Tarkington. “Their answers will usually include wanting to do their job well, make a decent living, support their family and have some enjoyment out of life. Then I ask them if getting arrested for DUI or DWI is taking them in the direction of their goals. If we can tap into their personal values and desires, we can usually help them walk themselves to their goal.”

“We want people to be abstinent during their treatment,” said Tarkington. “Our goal with them is not to tell them they have to have a lifetime of recovery, but to say you have got to stop using for a while and get these problems behind you, work on your life and then re-evaluate.

“Most people’s desire is not to go out and drink and smoke dope until they get a major buzz on. Their goal is to feel better. ‘I feel miserable, I feel bored, I feel unhappy and I want to feel better.’ That’s where the alcohol and substance abuse comes in and soon the substance use itself becomes the goal, and they forget the underlying desire to feel better. We help them to find the path back to their values.”

Helping People Find Their Path The DUI and DWI treatment programs are held in groups of 20 or less where the participants are urged to learn by sharing their experiences and insights, and giving feedback directly to each other.

Group members are also taught lifestyle changes such as how to handle social occasions and to “say no instead of yes when there are alcohol or drugs there,” according to Shook-Rosen.

Counselors keep the groups focused and engaged. “I don’t let people hide. We have found that when we clinically connect with them in a way that’s honest and direct, but still caring and nonjudgmental, people are really receptive to exploring change and being accountable for their own behaviors,” said Shook-Rosen.

“We want to create a safe environment with supports and boundaries that allow people to explore their steps to achieve wellness. I work really hard to help them realize how personal goals and self-accountability will enable them to have fulfilling, healthy lives,” said Holly Turbyfill.

First Step Services also offers a free Monday night family and friends support group open to the public. These therapeutic, educational discussions provide an opportunity to ask questions about addiction, learn how to help loved ones who may have a problem, and get support and encouragement.

“A lot of people express surprise at how much they do gain from the program. They expect to come in and sit in a chair for a few hours. But they come away with things that actually make a difference in their lives,” said Turbyfill.

“This morning someone shared pretty much a miracle that happened in his life because of some of the changes he’s made after being in our program. It’s a great moment to see the light bulb come on for someone. It’s like a new world opened for him. It was a very exhilarating moment for me. I almost started crying,” said Turbyfill.

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