A Sister's Campaign for Serenity

Melissa Hinton Turns Tragedy into a Sober Living Resource

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson and Serenity House

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Melissa Hinton lost her sister Rachel to alcohol abuse in 2019. She was 46.

Throughout Rachel’s fight for sobriety, her sister Melissa was a key source of support. A long-term recovering alcoholic and member of a self-help community that she joined 35 years ago in college when she stopped drinking), Melissa had already seen the need in the community for sober living facilities and decided to do something about it. “Instead of asking why not, we just got some people together and decided to get things going,” she said. The group she founded and for which she serves as executive director is called Loudoun Serenity House (LoudounSerenity.org). Melissa was a finalist this year for a Loudoun Chamber of Commerce Leadership Award in the Nonprofit Executive category. Loudoun Serenity House has rapidly grown with a dozen dedicated volunteers who work with its residents and a diverse Board of Directors that includes executives from the tech industry, medicine, research and retired military. 

“One of the quickest things to get going to fight addiction in a community is sober living,” she asserted.  As she uses the term “sober” living, it is inclusive of alcohol and all substances that are mood-altering. “Detoxing and rehabilitation centers take a bit longer because of certification issues and the need for trained personnel. But sober living is an essential part of recovery because it really helps people get through that first year sober by having reinforcement and accountability and a team of people at their back helping them build a recovery network,” she explained.

So, how did she do it? The most crucial part of the process, she says, is just being mindful of the process of establishing a sober living facility. “You have to be open to what the community is tolerant of, and have the community involved in some level of buy-in.” In the case of buying and establishing the downtown Leesburg men’s and women’s homes, the community was welcoming in, part because both properties purchased immediately received both indoor and outdoor renovation. It is also certified by the Virginia Association of Recovery Residents, which provides annual validation to ensure safety and quality of service. Each resident is assigned a recovery coach to help them work on targeted goals to build a substance-free life.

“We had a whole group of volunteers and community business leaders to landscape and paint and upgrade the women’s house in just 30 days,” Melissa said. She singled out Loudoun Valley Floors as one of the first to step up to install all the upstairs carpet for free, and Hollie Roche, owner and lead decorator of Behind the Front Door Interiors, who donated many hours and lots of furniture.

With their help and others, the women’s house opened on September 1, 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, and one year to the day after Rachel died from an overdose of alcohol following 10 months of sobriety. Melissa is grateful that, before she died, Rachel had a chance to see the property when Serenity was considering the purchase. Much of the furniture in the living room belonged to her.

It is likely that the emotional authority and commitment behind the project lent considerable credence to its authenticity and likelihood of succeeding, another key to community support. Both home purchases were made by an angel investor friend who lost his own son to a drug overdose. “I got connected with him years ago and he knew what I was trying to do to remember my sister who had died of alcoholism. And he said, let’s do this! I really think my sister would have benefitted from having a house like this,” Melissa said.

Since there are many reminders of Rachel in Serenity’s women’s home, from her photo in the front room to the memorial garden behind the house, we had to ask whether Melissa had come to any conclusions about why she stayed sober while Rachel succumbed to the disease. Both grew up in the same home with an alcoholic parent, for example. “One thing that made a difference between the two of us is that I had somebody intervene when I was young,” Melissa said. “There is a physiological piece to this. The longer you drink, the deeper your physiological brain chemistry addiction grows. I believe it’s a chronic, progressive disease.” Binge drinkers may not need a drink every morning to start their day, so may have an easier path to intervention if a friend or family member speaks up early, she added.

“The longer it goes on, the harder it is for them to stop and it can be deadly. That was my sister’s case,” Melissa said. “Could she have benefited from this in her 20’s? I remember the drinking patterns she had back then and the blackouts, and say, ‘Sure,’ but it’s the kind of disease that tells you, ‘It’s not that bad yet.’ She was a beautiful, gregarious woman with a successful career as an executive in the sports apparel industry. Everybody loved her. She left a 14-year-old son. So, why some people get help and others don’t is a really complicated question to answer.  We just want to give people every resource to get healthy. Many people will have several attempts before they find lasting or long-term recovery, which was my case. It took me nearly three years of treatment centers and some counseling and sober living for me to surrender to the truth.”

The two houses are within two and a half miles of each other. They’re both full – the women’s house has 8 residents and the men’s house 7 – and there are typically always three or four people on a waiting list, so Melissa is always looking for opportunities to expand. House residents pay rent but ongoing financial support is still needed to pay staff, recovery coaches, and supplies. For that, Loudoun Serenity relies on individual donors. They’ve also applied for grants and were one of 11 organizations that received $4,000 in funding from the Loudoun Chamber Foundation. A 2022 grant from 100 Women Strong for $20,000 helps residents with their first month’s rent while establishing employment. “We’re also looking to ask corporate donors to consider an annual donation or an employee match and to make us one of their charities, she said. “Addiction impacts everybody. I don't think you have to look far to find families or businesses who have people that are incredible humans, but they're struggling with substance issues.”

“If we look at our own families and ask the question, ‘when that person is ready to surrender (to treatment), where am I going to refer them? When you try to find resources, that's when you're shocked at how hard it is to find resources.” Melissa wants to provide a “whole network” of support. “Not only do the houses provide a sober, safe living situation, but we're also expanding to become a community recovery organization.” A grant this year by the Claude Moore Foundation and individual donations means that “We’re going to open an office where when somebody needs help, we help them navigate where and how to get help.”

That could be an in-patient or out-patient program, therapeutic or psychiatric counseling. “Most people spend days or weeks trying to find all those resources and waiting to hear what insurance will pay. It can be daunting, and by the time you find a solution, that person may say, ‘I'm good, I don't need help anymore.’ So, getting answers is very time sensitive, and it's important to have knowledgeable people to help navigate people to resources.” She’s calling it the Serenity House Recovery Community Organization.

And, she promises, not only will it provide therapeutic responses to addiction, but also fun events and activities to do together in a sober context. “We want like-minded people to hang out with who have fun things to do. They may want to learn a new career skill so they can move out of sober living and find a place they can afford on their own.”

Peer recovery specialists – people who have life experience with recovery or mental health issues and want to give back to the community – will be an important part of this network. Melissa says applicants can get 72 hours of free training from the state of Virginia and volunteer with Serenity House to get the additional 500 volunteer hours required for certification, following an online test. Hospitals, outpatient programs and community recovery organizations like Serenity House have paid positions for those with such training and can offer a free apartment to accompany that salary. Ideally, such a trainee would be sober for at least one year.

“It’s like they say,” quipped Melissa, “You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist others. You have to have your own recovery secured before you are able to help others.”

Still, anyone is welcome to volunteer, and there’s an online link for anyone who wants to be part of the group’s mission: LSH Volunteer Survey - Google Forms. Volunteers often make and deliver a Monday night dinner for either the men’s or women’s houses. Right now, the women’s house also is renovating the garage to become a yoga studio. Gardening, shopping, arranging fun, sober activities, and helping with fundraisers like the online bingo event the group held in February or the annual anniversary brunch at Belmont Country Club on the first Saturday in October, are other examples of how to help out. “I tell our volunteers that we want this to be fun. We want this to be community building. We want it to be for people whether they’re in recovery or not. It builds friendships and brings a sense of purpose. This is truly a community resource. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the community.”

Those looking for a sober living situation should go to the website loudounserenity.org, where they can click on either the “Women’s House” or “Men’s House” links under residential services and fill out an application. Melissa says, “We would like to see somebody come into a house who has roughly 30 days of total abstinence and is motivated and ready to make their recovery their number one priority. They can either go through a treatment program or maybe they're involved in AA. We provide accountability and policies to help residents stay sober so they should come in ready to live in a structured environment.”

Melissa asks our readers to remember Serenity House for Give Choose, a 24-hour celebration of giving to local Loudoun charities (communityfoundationlf.org/give-choose/) or just reach out and tell her how you’d like to get involved. Phone: 571-207-9000; email: melissa@loudounserenity.org

"Sober living is an essential part of recovery because it really helps people get through that first year sober by having reinforcement and accountability and a team of people at their back helping them stay sober." Melissa Hinton

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