Halfway to Sanity

Ben Wallis survives the chemical abyss to establish a place where others can heal

Wallis passed out. He came to in a rubber room at Desert Vista Hospital, strapped down. Wallis had hit the proverbial bottom of the barrel with a resounding thud.

After surviving detox, Wallis woke up one day with a moment of clarity that led to a redemption of sorts. He noticed the sky was bluer, and he could see the clouds, the trees, again.

"I called my mom, and she reluctantly answered, and I just said, 'Thank you.' And I told her, 'I'm not gonna call you again for a while.' I get a little choked up, I guess, because I look back at the type of person I was back then. I was a worthless piece of shit."

The next few months saw Wallis remain sober, though not without a slip (he drank one beer) and a lot of denial.

"I drank once," he says. "But I continued my sobriety date. But it was a lie. Alcoholics and addicts are such good liars that we make ourselves forget about these things."

A stint of homelessness and a subsequent reawakening led to his current occupation. Hence, Changes.

Changes Recovery Home consists of a two-story house with a garage converted into a library/meeting room. The addicts (clients) sleep upstairs; five bedrooms each outfitted with Brady Bunch-style bunk beds, many built by Wallis himself, using donated lumber.

A smaller building off to the side houses the kitchen and dining area, pantry, and bedroom/office for Wallis. There's also a bedroom for Chuck Gudel, the jolly in-house cook and ex-wino who possesses a laugh like a toothless freight-hopper; Gudel came to Changes more than two years ago after 40 years on the sauce. A small guest house sits in the back, occupied by Changes' manager Randy Clark.

Wallis started Changes May 9, 1996, with nothing but $210, a sympathetic mortgage holder named Stephen Letson (he let the compound go for $279,000, with a small down payment), and the fervent desire to help others stay clean. Wallis had a dream. He also had the ability to work his ass off.

"He works as hard as he can," says Letson. "I am carrying the mortgage on Changes, and they have yet to be on time with a payment. I'm not getting any profit out of the place; I doubt that I ever will. But you know, I've seen guys go through that place, and he [Wallis] helps 'em get cleaned up, sober and working, and even if just for a little while, they get another shot to climb the mountain of life."

Changes acquired the necessary IRS status to operate as a tax-exempt organization, and generous donors--including West Side Food Bank and Motor Replacement--contribute supplies and food.

It's a constant financial battle to stay afloat. Changes' bare-bones overhead exceeds eight grand a month, hardly a pittance, and right now, as always, the organization is behind on a handful of bills. Wallis is perpetually manning the phone, trying to drum up donations from large corporations needing tax write-offs, keeping some utility from getting shut off.

"I had an inside connection at the Hilton chain, and I sent a letter to Barron Hilton," says Wallis, almost laughing. "I mean, the guy is worth $90 billion, and he sent us a two-night stay for two at a Hilton resort! All we wanted was a little help with the house."

But they are saving lives, and they do have fun.
Dominic, a handsome if road-weary 44-year-old mechanic from New York, says he has been a junkie for 30 years. He worked on dealers' cars in exchange for dope. At Changes, he has more than 100 days clean. And now he works on automobiles that are donated to Changes, repaired and then resold, with the profits funneled back into the program.

He has seen the insides of many Valley halfway houses, and had this to say: "From what I have seen, this is the only fuckin' one that works. People like each other here. We all get along. There are no power trips."

Randy, 36, who has a little more than two years sober, agrees.
"I was slammin' meth, I was a tweaker from hell," he says through a mouthful of dentures. "Before that I was doing coke, speed and LSD. And because of my using, I lost my wife, two kids and all of my teeth. And I spent time in the joint, the whole time I was getting high. The shit's easy to get in there.

"I eventually made amends with my kids and ex-wife, and that was beautiful. I flew 'em out here from Ohio after 11 years since I had seen 'em. . . . They forgave me for everything I did. They understand everything I had been through. It's unbelievable."

But not all have come through Changes with flying colors. The boys tell of Robert, who graduated nine months ago but died of alcohol poisoning.

"After two weeks of graduating here, Robert lost his job," says Wallis. "He started drinking and was too embarrassed to come back. He died. It was horrible."

Wallis and his assistant directors--Larry Ruehs and Danny Bingham--insist they are not in this for money, which makes sense because, obviously, there is no money. Changes' 29-item wish list includes everything from paying off the mortgage to acquiring new towels to opening a treatment center for kids. The struggle to help those in need is perpetual, and if all this makes Wallis sound as if he is bucking for sainthood, perhaps he is. Or at least an ex-junkie angel trying to stay afloat.

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