John Volken’s Welcome Home Program: A Second Chance For Addicts
By Emily Rose
I always thought faith was the ability to believe in something that cannot be proven, some intangible element woven into our lives like threads we can sense, but never see.
As I grew older my belief in faith was questioned, as is often the case for people during difficult times. It has only been recently that I learned there is much more to faith than finding the answers to questions that are not based on evidence.
Real faith takes courage and trust. Often, it requires the helping hands of others to provide you with faith when your own supply is running low. And, as I learned during an evening spent with John Volken, real faith takes determination, and the desire to succeed.
Determination to Succeed
John Volken was born in 1941 and grew up in Soviet-occupied East Germany. When Volken was three his father died, and his mother struggled to cope financially. Volken spent some time in an orphanage, before returning to his family and escaping East Germany. At 14, he worked during the day to support himself and attended school in the evening.
In 1960, Volken emigrated to Canada at 18 with less than $100 in his pocket. He worked first at a Cauliflower farm in Toronto, and then a flower shop for $1 an hour. Over the next two decades he opened a flower shop, became a salesman for frozen food, bought twenty-two old houses and fixed them up, began a frozen food business, and wrote a book called 1001 Ways to Make Money. He lived in Ontario, Quebec and Nevada before eventually settling in Vancouver. In the 80’s he began a network to sell used items, before realizing it was more lucrative to sell new furniture. He changed the name to United Furniture Warehouse. It became one of the largest retail furniture chains in North America, operating in 148 locations with annual sales in excess of $200 million dollars a year.
In 1994, Volken won the prestigious Canada’s Pacific Region Entrepreneur of the year award. Surrounded by around 1,000 businessmen and women, he considered all that he had done in life. In that moment, he made a decision that would change his life, and the lives of many others. He decided he could do more.
Felicity, Scruples, Reverent
I first meet John Volken around a large dining table with a family of about a dozen other people, who are chatting companionably about their work day. He invited me that afternoon, after I called him wanting to know more about his advocacy work. He introduces me to his wife and the others at the table, including Josh from Utah, the Student Council President. Before digging into a meal, Volken leads them all in a prayer. A man introduced as Marty stands and calls attendance, before leading the group in an affirmation for rehabilitation:
“….I am changing my attitude.
I am changing my behaviour.
I am changing my values.
I am changing my life!
The power to succeed lies within me…”
Although referred to as a family, this is no ordinary family dinner. Volken is surrounded by program participants (referred to as “students”) of Welcome Home program, a two year internationally-accredited recovery program for people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Over approximately two years, students advance through six levels of progressive addiction recovery with increasing levels of responsibility, challenges and privileges. During this time, they undertake vocational training by working at PricePro, a grocery and household goods store in Surrey, British Columbia. The work is intensive- six days a week, twelve hours a day- but, as a young woman around my age tells me, “It is rewarding”.
“This program has been referred to as the NAVY seals of recovery” John says. “I’m a great advocate for long term recovery… it takes time to turn the picture around. I believe drugs are a symptom, not a cause. Here we get to the cause of addiction … so when they leave here they have the tools to help them in sobriety …”
Volken has genuine warmth in his tone, and I’m reminded of an antecdote recounted on the Welcome Home website:
The other day one of the students made a rather serious mistake… that’s expected. It gave me an opportunity to spend some time with him. After our “heart to heart” we hugged and I told him. “I love you”. He responded with tears and said, “My father never said that to me… and how can you love me after all the stupid things I have done?” I re-assured him that all the stupid things were behind him, and that he was now on his way to a new life, that is what Welcome Home is all about.
Currently, there are 27 students enrolled in the program, divided into three ‘families’. A sister site in Seattle also has 27 students. Students are provided with housing, food and all other living expenses for a nominal registration fee. On graduation, they are given a $3000 grant to assist in creating their new lives. Every night, each family meets on the second floor of PricePro for dinner.
When I ask Volken why he began Welcome Home, he puts down his knife and fork and turns to me. “I believe in learning, earning and then returning. And once you have taken care of your family, what else can you do?” After selling United Furniture Warehouse to the Brick, Volken used the funds to start the John Volken Foundation. In addition to Welcome Home, the foundation also funds the Welcome Home for Children and Lift the Children programs, which help orphaned and abandoned children in Africa.
“I believe someday we [will] stand before our maker and He’s going to ask, ‘What did you do with your life?’ I want to be able to say I did the best I could. Mother Theresa said we don’t need to succeed in all things. We just need to do the best we can… it inspires me …. I really enjoy doing this.”
I ask him why he chose to help those addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“I thought about feeding the poor. And I met with the people from Union Gospel mission and the Salvation Army … I spent a lot of evenings downtown and all over the place, giving out sandwiches. [The Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission] said … that people go out of detox and they don’t know where to go. What’s needed is a long term facility that they can go to and learn to live again … I visited different therapeutic communities in North America and in Europe and I said wow, that changes people…”
Marty stands up and reads from a large sheet of paper on a stand next to the table. “Our first word is felicity, which means intense happiness and the ability to find appropriate expression for one’s thoughts.” Volken leans towards me and explains.
“Every morning each family comes up with a word. Something that’s not used every day. and then in the evening they each make a sentence with all the words.” I like the game. Choosing the words requires the cooperation of family members, and passes knowledge from one person to the next. Combining the words in one sentence represents the joining of each family into a cohesive whole. Speaking the sentences encourages communication.
Marty continues. “Our second word is scruples; it means the uneasy feeling arising from conscious or principal that tends to hinder action. Our third word is reverent, feeling or showing profound respect or veneration.”
The students, one by one, make a sentence using the three words. “I try to keep my mind filled with felicity, while I look through my scruples and practice being reverent to my peers,” says one.
“I’ve always revered people who have the scruples to live a life of felicity,” says another.
After half the students have made a sentence, it’s my turn. “I’ll try it,” I say. “I have felicity that I have the opportunity to be here tonight. I have a lot of reverence for people that are trying to improve their scruples, and I respect that.”
“Awesome,” Volken says. He gestures around the table. “We teach them to be the best they can be. I meet with them on a one-to-one basis, encourage them. We teach them accountability. We teach them punctuality. We teach them leadership … we teach them little by little. We teach them how to walk.”
After we finish dinner, Marty stands up and calls out the chores distribution. “Thank you Marty,” everyone choruses. They stand up, scrape their leftovers in the bin and stack the plates neatly in the kitchen.
Planting the Seed
Volken and I leave the happy, animated group and head down the hallway to his office, a large room with one wall covered with photographs of orphanages in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa and Mozambique.
“This is our charity” he says, gesturing to the walls. Lift the Children builds and supports non-denominational Christian-based orphanages. They partner with local grass-roots organizations to provide shelter, food, education, and healthcare to orphans. Volken looks at the photographs. “Each one is a different orphanage. There’s about 30 of them here. We support about 51.”
I ask him whether he feels a connection to the orphans because he, himself, was one. “Maybe heavenly Father planted the seed there and said hey, think about this.”
We continue to talk about Welcome Home and Lift the Children. His face is animated and the passion is evident in his eyes. “Emily, it’s all rewarding. And if it’s done right, it will last forever.”
We talk about how his belief in God influences his advocacy work, and he shares a Psalm that helps him through difficult times. “Be still and know I am God,” he says.
He lapses into silence for a moment, before continuing. “If you believe there’s a God and you see struggling people and you say that’s none of my business, then you don’t really believe in God. So I always think about that.”
Determination to Live
As I walk down the stairs and through the PricePro store floor, Josh is hanging floor carpets on a large runner from the ceiling. He calls out to me.
“Aren’t you going to interview me?” he asks.
“Sure,” I grin. Josh tells me that he first tried rehab last February, after his best friend died from an overdose.
“So that was the wakeup call that I needed. I tried it in Utah … but it only worked for 90 days and I started getting into old habits … I relapsed and got way back into it, just doing all the same old stuff.”
He found out about Welcome Home through a family friend.
“In all honesty I came expecting to stay for about a month … but then I came here and the concept was so different than anything I’m used to. There’s so much opportunity now, so why would I leave? I have my struggles all the time … but I know that if I can do this, I can do anything … it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Where would you be without Welcome Home?” I ask.
“Oh, I would be dead. Or in jail,” he replies immediately.
“What kept you in the program? Why didn’t you give up?”
He shrugs. “I’ve told myself I don’t want to go home without honor.”
“Do you have any advice for anyone that is dealing with an addiction?”
“The pain of the problem is less than the pain of the solution.” He thinks for a moment. “It’s always going to be easier to just use drugs, but what are you going to do to change it? First comes awareness. You have to realize you have an addiction. You have to make a decision to change that. But the most important thing is putting action to change that. You have to do that. You can’t fake it. …”
He trails off, and we talk about why I came to Welcome Home tonight. I tell him that I wanted to know more about faith and determination. He asks me how long I’ve been writing for, and then asks me how much I want to succeed as a writer.
“More than anything,” I say quietly. But I also tell him that the transition from counsellor to freelance writer has been difficult, and I’ve often felt like giving up.
“I’d like to tell you a story,” he says. “It’s about a young man who looked up to someone who was a successful businessman. This young optimistic guy says, ‘Hey, how do I be like you … how do I be successful, what’s your secret?’ The man says, ‘Alright. I’ll tell you but you gotta meet me at the beach tomorrow at 4.30 in the morning.’ And so he shows up to the beach and he’s all in his suit looking all good, and the guy is out in the water. He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ [The man] says, ‘Come out here.’ So he heads out into the water, ankle deep … and says,’ What’s going on?’ The guy says, ‘Come out further, if you want to know the secret, I’ll tell you’. So he goes a little bit further and he’s up to his waist. He thinks this guy is crazy … what am I doing out here in the water? The guy is out 10, 15 feet, so he heads out there and he’s up to his chin in the water. He thinks the guy is totally bonkers… the man says, ‘Do you want to know the secret to success?’ and he says, “yes.’ The man dunks him in the water and he holds him there … right before he’s about to pass out, he pulls him out … [the man] says, ‘What did you want to do more than anything when you were in that water?’ He says, ‘I wanted to breathe.’ The man says, ‘When you want to succeed as badly as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.”
“And so that always stuck with me right here, you know what I mean?” He taps his chest over his heart. “Because there’s things that I want. Everyone wants a million dollars, but how are you going to get it? What are you going to do to get it? How far are you willing to go? I came here because I wanted to change. I’m tired of shootin’ heroin in bathrooms. I’m done. I told my family, I told everyone, I asked myself what am I going to do to change it because it’s not the environment that’s gotta change, it’s not my friends that gotta change, it’s me. I gotta change, and it’s been the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. But it’s been the most worthwhile. That’s what gets me through.”
Faith to Keep Going
It’s dark by the time I walk out to my car, and there’s a chill in the damp November air. Despite this, I feel warm. I think about John Volken and Josh, and everyone else who has found courage and determination after being faced with adversity. This life has many twists and turns, and it’s easy to lose your way- to relapse, to forget your dreams, and it‘s a struggle sometimes to even survive. It’s faith that gets us through. Faith and- if we are lucky- the helping hands of those who want to see us succeed.
To find out more about the John Volken Foundation and PricePro, see the following websites:
Emily Rose Bio:
Emily Rose is an Australian/Canadian freelance writer and editor living in Vancouver, BC.
Passionate about raising mental health awareness, she has a postgraduate degree in Psychology and has worked as a counsellor and facilitated therapeutic creative writing workshops for individuals with mental illness. Her work has appeared in a number of online and print publications including The Vancouver Observer, The Granville Island website and the anthology Emerge. She is currently writing a narrative non-fiction book about mental illness in North America, called South of Sane: Navigating Madness across North America (www.crazy tales.org). Her fiction, articles and other writings can be found at www.writtenbyrose.com.
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