By Emma Castleberry | Photos by Ken Hughes
Nestled in the golden hills of Candler, rows of long, plastic-covered greenhouses stretch out beside a set of small, gray buildings. It is quiet here, saturated with the gentle air and golden light unique to truly natural places, well-insulated from the noise and bustle of Asheville. It is the kind of place that instills one with a sense of calm and well-being, the kind of place that might be described as healing.
This is one of two campuses operated by First Step Farm of WNC, a residential, supervised living center for substance-dependent adults. At this 30-acre women’s facility, up to 15 women live together and work seasonally in the greenhouses to grow annual and perennial flowers, which are sold at the First Step Farm retail store. The women’s facility is located about 11 miles from the much larger men’s campus where up to 22 men live together and work in both greenhouses and crop fields, producing a variety of vegetable transplants such as tomatoes, peppers and cabbage.
In addition to working in the retail store, greenhouses or crop fields, residents participate in a structured daily regimen of therapy and treatment. This includes group therapy, individual therapy sessions and twice weekly trips out to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the community. “We’re very supported by the recovering community,” says Amy Kasdorf, a licensed clinician and program director at the women’s facility. “They come out and support two in-house meetings a week, and on Mondays, sponsors come to meet with their residents.”
The men’s facility was established in 1977 by a partnership of three local attorneys. “The founders felt that if a person could get out into the fresh air, do some good, honest work and get their bodies back into shape and eat right, there was an opportunity for them to get sober and stay sober,” says Craig White, a licensed clinician and program director at the men’s facility. The attorneys went to the legislature and wrote a law to secure state funding for First Step. While most North Carolina substance abuse programs are federally funded by a block grant that is distributed through Health and Human Services, First Step Farm has guaranteed funding that is provided directly by the state. At the community’s request, the Farm’s board of directors raised the additional funds for a women’s facility, which was established in 1992.
First Step Farm specifically serves people without health insurance or resources who otherwise could not afford treatment programs. “This is a last chance for some people,” says Kasdorf. There is no denying the irony of the program’s name. “Many of our residents have taken many steps before they come here,” says White. “They have to be detoxified, indigent residents of the state and they have to successfully complete a state-licensed course of treatment. They get the majority of their issues out of the way and they are here to transition back into the world.”
For Samantha Russell, who left First Step Farm in January after a 13-month stay, money was a concern during her search for treatment. “Most people who are using drugs don’t have the resources to afford treatment,” she says. “My family is clean, but they didn’t have a large sum of money to send me to treatment.”
Russell started using drugs in high school. After graduation, she briefly attended Mars Hill University before dropping out because of her addiction. She had been an IV heroin user for two years when she ran into legal troubles at the age of 20. After completing a detoxification program at Balsam Center, followed by stays at Julian F. Keith Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center and Swain Recovery Center, Russell’s counselor recommended her for First Step Farm. She was admitted on December 27, 2016. “I didn’t know how to live clean and that is what the Farm taught me how to do,” she says. “I’d never had a job before and I worked at the retail store for nine months.” Not only did this experience provide Russell with vocational training but she was also paid for her time, which allowed her to save money for her life after First Step.
Russell will be turning 22 in June. “I haven’t used drugs since I was 20,” she says. “I have a job. I have alternate ways to cope with stress. I have solid relationships with other women in recovery, many of which I built while at the Farm.” She plans to enroll at A-B Tech Community College soon and looks forward to finishing what she started before her addiction took over. “I have a life today,” says Russell. “Without the Farm, none of it would be possible.”
The First Step Farm retail store is located at 701 Smoky Park Highway in Candler. For more information, visit firststepfarmwnc.org.