How much can one person do? Ask the woman who decided the Reno area needed a transitional home for sober women—and started her own.
There’s a nondescript tract house on a quiet street in Sparks. It looks like every other house in the neighborhood: beige siding, a modest yard contained by a neat chain-link fence, a few small flower-gardening projects started but not finished.
Barbara Pierson greets me at the door in a red sweater vest. She gives a welcoming smile a big, exuberant, “Hi.” Inside, the atmosphere is warm and pleasant. A sign-in sheet at door and emergency exit plans are the only immediate signs of institutionality. Other than that, it looks like home. The walls are peach, aqua and coffee-colored. A few white dry-erase boards with neat, hand-lettered lists lend the air of a tightly run ship—not of the military kind, though; it looks more like a well organized roommate situation. Pierson’s art hangs on the walls, mosaics made of carefully pieced-together bits of tile or broken glass. The multicolored slate floor she installed is the most eye-catching clue to the amount of care—and sweat equity—she’s put into the place.
The house is temporarily home to a few women who are making the transition to sober lifestyles after bouts with crystal meth, alcohol, sometimes homelessness and sometimes the law. It’s called, appropriately, The Launching Pad.
Pierson, 49, the daughter of lifelong entrepreneurs, appears to have boundless energy. She’s been a restaurant manager, office manager and day-care provider, and she spent her share of time wrestling with substance abuse. Last year, after seven years of sobriety, she decided to focus her energy on helping others, especially women seeking out sober lifestyles. Pierson says she was inspired by an RN&R article last winter, ["Home for the holidays, Dec. 9], which brought to light the lack of homeless shelters for women in the Reno area. She points out that most of the resources for people trying to get back on their feet after experiencing homelessness or addiction are still for men only. But there are a lot of women in need of similar kinds of help.
“Women have been caught up with drugs, too,” she points out. “We’re every bit as bad as men.”
She refinanced some property, bought the house and started asking around for services and household items. She posted fliers at AA meetings and jazzercise classes. Her requests yielded donations of appliances, paint and other necessities.
“The wall texture was even donated,” Pierson points out, walking through a hallway to her small, extraordinarily neat office. Much of the labor required to remodel the house was donated, and Pierson also did a lot of it herself, including her artful arrangement of smooth, black stones embedded in the dining-area floor.
The house opened early last spring. Six women share three of the five bedrooms. (One bedroom is the office, and one is the house manager’s room.) They’ve each committed to a nine-month, 12-step program, and they hope to replace drug or alcohol dependence with new coping skills and new friends. Pierson mentions that women who’ve been abusing drugs and alcohol typically don’t maintain friendships with women. She reports that when the women are asked during AA meetings to say what they’re thankful for, they often say they’re glad she’s introduced them to the concept of having girlfriends.
A couple of the women are at home on a sunny weekday afternoon. They’re as welcoming as Pierson is, surprisingly open and eager to chat. A pretty brunette named Monica saunters into the kitchen wearing plaid pajamas to heat some eyebrow wax in the microwave.
Jenna, a woman in her early 20s with a piercing under her lip, settles into a big, soft loveseat and volunteers that The Launching Pad is “not quite a normal living situation, but there’s some freedom.”
Pierson calls down the hall to someone else, jokingly, “Are you decent?” before she escorts me on the rest of her tour. Her combination of joviality and respect sets the tone in the house, and she’s thought carefully about designing a living space with those attitudes in mind.
“I tried to accomplish a little privacy by putting a dresser between the beds,” she points out. She’s placed a small clip-on lamp at the head of each bed, so one person can stay up to read while another is asleep. She’s put bumper stickers on mirrors in an attempt to promote both mindfulness and humor: “Don’t believe everything you think,” and “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
The Launching Pad has already endured some growing pains, and Pearson has learned some lessons the quick way.
“In the beginning, it was a mess,” she says. “A lot of women were moving in with no money and taking advantage of me.” At one point early on, she went out of town for two weeks. “When I came back, these women had practically had a kegger in the house.”
Pierson implemented some new rules. She describes the place as having been “just a sober boarding house” in the early days. Now, there’s more structure. Each resident is required to arrive with enough money for a room deposit, hold down a job and pay $125 a week in rent. They participate in a 12-step program and attend AA or NA meetings frequently. Each woman must have a sponsor from AA or NA, who serves as a mentor. There’s a 10 p.m. curfew on visitors and phone calls.
“We’re strict but tolerant,” Pierson says. “We’re compassionate without enabling bad behavior.” Minor infractions don’t change a resident’s status for the worse, but staying sober is crucial. One woman, who had been making plans to start a local chapter of Crystal Meth Anonymous, gave in to the drug and was asked to leave last week.
Pierson says the tough-love approach isn’t easy, but she reserves The Launching Pad’s limited number of spots for women who aren’t using. Still, she maintains hope that the woman who left will stop indulging her drug habit and come back.
“I get two or three letters every day from jail,” she reports. Potential clients are also referred from AA. Most end up on a waiting list.
Although Pierson has created a small entity that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the size of some of the problems she wants to see remedied, her optimism and energy seem perpetual. She hopes to shorten that waiting list by remodeling another house. She reports that her offer on the second house has been accepted, and The Launching Pad (assisted by donated legal services) is in the later stages of becoming a non-profit organization.
Designing and running a transitional home from scratch has been no easy task, but Pierson isn’t daunted. She says she gets more out of her job than she puts into it.
“I’m happier than I’ve even been in my life,” she says, flashing that exuberant smile.