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For women battling addiction to drugs and alcohol, the quiet, almost secretive We Care is the last house on the block.

Seedy would be a polite way to describe this stretch of Sixth Street, in the shadow of the Stratosphere, just east of the so-called world’s largest gift shop (“If it’s in stock, we have it!”). Diagonally across from the little, nondescript We Care house, a mumbling wretch has spent years staking out a begging pitch, shambling and pleading in front of a vintage Marie Callender’s. (Local legend has it she once reached “double-digit sobriety” before suffering a relapse from which she has not recovered.) Sharing the Callender’s parking lot, a Tony Roma’s and Café Heidelberg limped along through most of the recession, only to close recently. The house itself is bordered by the neglected lawns of the 99 percent; a vacant lot across the street is a moonscape of rubble and straw-colored grass.

For all the lack of promise around it, We Care is all about promise inside, at least for the addicted women seeking to right their lives. This is not the celebrity rehab you’ve seen on TV. No sweeping lawns or breathtaking views. No horseback riding. No massages.

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“It’s like getting sober at your grandma’s house,” says Lilly M., a rough-and-ready single mom and We Care veteran. Here, struggling women get a second (and sometimes third or fourth) chance, from the court-ordered girls with their gangsta garb to the disgraced kindergarten teachers who can’t stop crying; from impaired nurses and distraught divorcees to aging strippers and haven’t-had-a-legal-drink-yet Lolitas. And the plain old drunks, too. “This house is magic” has been said by too many We Care girls to attribute accurately. The place just has something big and magical inside, according to its friends. Officially, it’s recovery. However, most who come here call it love.

On a recent Sunday morning at 10 o’clock, a meeting is about to begin. A few children occupy themselves with coloring books and cartoons in the front room. Recovery meetings are held in the old dining room every morning of every week, Sundays and holidays included. They are open to locals, but to women only. Of course, where there are large numbers of women, there are often children. They are welcome, as long as an atmosphere of recovery is maintained. (That means no rowdy play.)


Exchanging tears and laughter

Like most 12-step meetings, We Care’s start with what recovery veterans call “the meeting before the meeting,” a raucous time when program members greet each other like long-lost siblings — even if they saw each other yesterday. Lots of hugging and laughter. Lots of laughter. And some tears. Compliments are exchanged, along with phone numbers. Visitors will notice the sturdy table at the front of the room, its formica surface chipped in spots, laden with tissue boxes, a bunch of artificial flowers and some coffee cups. Behind the table sits a row of women, some young, some not so young. There are never more than eight. Some smile too brightly, others have been crying. These are “the ladies in the house,” the inpatients, each enrolled in the 30-day program We Care offers. Facing them, on 40 or so folding chairs, sit the women of We Care. “Outpatients,” they jokingly call themselves. A lot of joking goes on here.

The women don’t “look like” alcoholics. Or addicts. Some have semi-famous faces or bodies — there are showgirls and dancers here, as well as librarians, waitresses, geologists and lawyers. “We clean up real good,” they laugh.

But today, as it does at 10 a.m. every day of the year, the laughter and chatter dies down as the house mom on duty opens the meeting. She has asked one of the women at the table to read a prayer aloud. Sometimes the woman can’t make it to the end without crying. Maybe another woman can’t read much beyond a third-grade level. The audience is patient. They know how it feels to be overcome by tears, or a task too difficult. They wait.

A woman in the audience is selected to read from an inspirational book, and then she shares her thoughts on the reading for maybe five minutes. When she is finished, the house mom calls on another woman, and then another. Women share their “experience, strength and hope” on the reading topic. Some share like veteran standup comics, others declaim like rolling thunder. Laughter through tears is common. A prayer circle closes the meeting an hour after it began.

These are local women (and a few out-of-town visitors), some of whom have “graduated” from the residential program but return for the meetings. Others say, “I didn’t go through We Care, but We Care went through me.” They are women who, having heard about the meetings through the recovery grapevine, find themselves drawn to this humble, four-bedroom house. Some have been coming for upwards of 20 years. There have been more than one mother-daughter combo.

This is where potential 12-step sponsors may meet potential sponsorees, and women of all ages and lengths of sobriety forge the bonds they hope will keep them free of drugs and alcohol. “I don’t know what part of the program keeps me sober,” one said recently. “So I do it all: I read the Big Book, I work the Steps, I call my sponsor, I do service, I go to meetings and I ‘fellowship.’ I need it all.”


For women, by women

Since 1961, We Care House has helped several thousand women help each other get and stay sober. It offers a program closely modeled on the 12-step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (though it’s not affiliated with that group). The house isn’t staffed by professional counselors or medicos; it’s run by women with long-term recovery who help other women achieve long-term recovery. (There’s a small paid staff; the house moms are volunteers.) Says C.M., a longtime attendee, “This is real recovery. These women will come out of this house with a real foundation in the 12 steps. They won’t leave here with a handful of prescriptions.” Those who do need prescribed medications are taught healthy ways to regard them, and to rely on their own Higher Power instead of popping a pill to change the way they feel.

About that Higher Power. To the atheistically inclined, We Care’s emphasis on spirituality — not religion but spirituality — can create discomfort. And yet there are some avowed atheists who have graduated from the program and have no problem with the “God talk.” “I know what I believe and what I don’t,” says one. “For me, my Higher Power is the love I feel in the house. What anyone else believes is up to them.”

Why, despite the thousands of women who’ve gone through the program, have you never heard of We Care?

“Maybe it’s the fact that we’re practicing an ‘anonymous program,’” says Berta G., longtime program member and president of the We Care board of directors. “Or that we practice attraction rather than promotion. But we have not publicized our existence, and that has had the effect of limiting the number of women who know about us. But we’re not intentionally a deep, dark secret.”

That institutional preference against promoting We Care, coupled with the modest fees it charges, has at times caused the home some financial insecurity. The women in the house pay $2,000 for a one-month stay. Contrast that with the $30,000-$60,000 charged by the brand-name rehab programs, especially those that trumpet themselves as “not a 12-step program.” That $2,000 covers three meals a day and dormitory-style lodging — two or three to a room, with the house mom on duty having a room to herself — as well as a crash course in the philosophy and practice of the abstinence-based 12-step program. In the month they live there, the women are brought into contact with other women who attend the meetings and who, it is hoped, provide living examples of the life sobriety affords. In return, the women living in the house “keep it green” for the women who attend the meetings. It’s a kind of symbiosis.

[HEAR MORE: Why is drug use such a problem in rural areas? Hear a discussion on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]


Now sleep in it

Living in the house includes taking care of it, something many of the residents have long neglected or never been taught. Beds must be made. Bathrooms and kitchen must be kept clean. Healthy meals must be prepared and shared. The women attend to these chores themselves, under the 24-hour guidance of a director and crew of house moms, usually graduates who know the philosophy and routines — and who, as recovering alcoholics themselves, know how manipulative newcomers to recovery can be, and therefore know how to say no to requests for everything from visits with boyfriends to extra snacks. That said, there is no “lockdown,” other than the ordinary security precautions at night, as any household would have.

There’s no dress code, either, but there is the expectation that, as befits responsible members of society, the women will dress and comport themselves accordingly. “Smackdown Betty,” a cherished, longtime house mom, now retired, was renowned for her sharp disapproval of flesh-baring outfits and vulgar language. “Where do you think you are, back on the streets?” she told more than one newcomer. “Button that up and don’t come in here with your blouse open that low again!”

“It was shocking, yes, but I needed to be shocked,” one chastised newcomer said.

Rates of successful treatment in addiction recovery are notoriously difficult to establish. This is partly because of the anonymity requirement of most recovery programs. Estimates as high as 50 percent and as low as 10 percent are considered the norm, and every celebrity who checks into rehab just to quickly check back out  only seems to underscore the futility of much addiction treatment, whether it’s the traditional 12-step, dollar-in-the-basket anonymous type, the more “scientific,” medicine-based regimens, or even the new-agey, “individually tailored” approaches of the luxury centers. So there’s no way to know how We Care’s success rates compare with those of other programs. But there’s no arguing with the palpable love shared by the women who come to the house.

That love is manifest in the activities of Grateful Hearts, the fundraising arm of the We Care Foundation. They organize and run yard sales, spaghetti dinners, camp outs and carnivals — most recently, it was an atypically upscale event, an art auction called Grateful Art. These and similar activities, along with donations, grants and contributions, eke out We Care’s operating expenses.

Money, of course, isn’t how success is measured at We Care. “Twelve-step recovery is strong in Las Vegas,” says Mary B., a Bronx transplant. With regrettably good reason. For the addicted, Sin City is like the world’s biggest gift shop, every temptation perpetually in stock. “Las Vegas does not want anybody to stop doing anything. Ever! Maybe Las Vegas is the reason We Care is so special. It has to be.”

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