GARDNER – GAAMHA officials are preparing for the grand opening of the Carl E. Dahl House at Evergreen Cove, an innovative substance recovery program billed as the first of its kind in the region.
A dedication and open house ceremony for the Dahl House, which is located on 115 acres in the former LeBlanc Stables property on Route 140, is scheduled for October 6.
“It took a long time to prepare,” said Shawn Hayden, COO of GAAMHA. “It will be an alternative approach to treatment, because not everyone recovers the same way. And that’s where this kind of program comes in.
The Dahl House program, a 16-bed facility for men, will use an agricultural work environment to help residents struggling with substance abuse and other disorders address their recovery. GAAMHA said a similar therapeutic agriculture program at its Athol site has been very successful since it opened in January 2018.
The treatment facility will also serve as a livestock recovery program. Among the animals that residents will provide care and companionship to through the program will be donkeys, goats, sheep and ponies. The ponies will be provided by the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center (NPCC), a non-profit organization dedicated to saving endangered animals, which collaborates with GAAMHA in the program.
“A lot of animals are very therapeutic, so their relationships with humans are unique,” said Emily Aho, director of NPCC. “And horses don’t lie; they tell you right away how they feel about you, so if you’re stressed out and you’re with one of them, they won’t want to be around you. They reflect what is going on inside of you.
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Newfoundland ponies are a rare breed, according to Aho, who said there are fewer than 45 animals in the United States. She added that the care and treatment provided by the residents of the program will be just as important as the therapy the animals will provide in return.
The GAAMHA program is the first substance recovery program that Aho has said she has participated in, but she recently founded a similar service, the Equine Assisted Life Skills program, to help reduce the stress of the pandemic experienced by doctors, nurses and first responders.
“(The ponies) can hear our hearts beat and they know what our moods are without us even having to tell them – they can smell it,” Aho said, adding that a nurse participating in the program could immediately tell that the her assigned pony was reacting to the anxiety she had accumulated during her work. “The pony pulled away from her because she felt (the nurse) was not going to be a good partner. She could tell there was something wrong.
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Aho, along with her husband, George, will help guide residents through the proper treatment and care of the ponies, and she said she looks forward to a long and productive collaboration with GAAMHA at the Dahl House.
“We oversee the care of the ponies and teach the residents how to care for the ponies and why the breed is so special, because when you think about it, the ponies have also been lost – they have been forgotten and gone,” said Aho. . “So they give each other a future.”
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Officials say the center will include on-site clinical staff, transitional and permanent housing monitoring programs and acres of trails, pastures and forests. The facility will employ between 15 and 20 people, including staff members who will oversee the day-to-day operations of a working farm.
The program is named in honor of Carl E. Dahl, who found sobriety as a guest of GAAMHA’s Pathway House in Gardner. Dahl, who had been a successful engineer and dairy farmer, became an advisor to Pathway House and eventually the Business Director of GAAMHA, where he oversaw programs against substance use disorders and other aspects of the agency. Dahl died in 2004.