When Dave Kerr graduated from Verona High School with the class of 1960, his parents thought he should have a career in business. He saw a future in music.
His retirement dinner in Newark tomorrow night will celebrate a legacy he couldn’t have imagined back then: Four decades of helping men and women recover from drug addiction. Kerr is the founder of Integrity House, a Newark-based community that became the model for drug rehabilitation programs nationwide.
“I didn’t have a background in drug treatment,” Kerr recalls of his start. “No one had one then: The treatment for drug addicts was to lock them up.”
Then was 1968, a year after the riots that decimated Newark. Kerr worked in the city as a parole officer and most of his parolees had a problem with substance abuse. But where the conventional wisdom of the time held that drug addicts were guilty of some moral failing and deserving of society’s reproach, Kerr saw human beings with potential that risked being lost.
“There were people like Lloyd Wright,” Kerr recalls. “Raised in poverty, a Golden Gloves champion, an artist extraordinaire–and a heroin addict. I met him in November 1965. I started to get to know other parolees. They had similar talents. They were bright, engaging people.”
So Kerr and his cousin Richard Grossklaus, also from Verona, rented a dilapidated brownstone in Newark and offered it to addicts as a place to break free from the past. They were almost quickly broken: One day when Kerr and Grossklaus were away, the addicts stripped the place of everything of value. Kerr thought of packing up, and then thought again. He laid down the rules that would become the foundation of the 24 homes that Integrity House now runs in Newark. “I threw everyone out, and said ‘if you want to come back, you have to follow the rules’.” Rule one: Love the addicts, but never trust them.
“He learned as he went along,” says Dr. Michael Festa. The former Verona health officer–now the head of the Essex County Health Department–was one of the first board members of Integrity House. “He did what he thought was best. Without Integrity House, it would have been a matter of death on the streets.”
Integrity House now sees roughly 1,600 people a year at its Newark houses and another facility in Secaucus. Some come from urban areas, but many have suburban lives broken by street drugs and prescription painkillers. Some leave before they barely unpack, and others stay with Integrity House for what Kerr thinks is the time needed for an addict to rehabilitate himself, five years. “This is a lifetime disease,” he says.
Kerr’s retirement dinner will be Thursday, March 29 at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, but it will hardly be an end to his work in substance abuse. He will become a consultant to Integrity House, a blogger on addiction and a consultant to drug treatment programs elsewhere. But the Glen Ridge resident will also have more time for travel with his wife and his music: On April 21, the Orpheus Club of Ridgewood will perform one of his compositions at its spring concert.
Kerr sees the need for recovery as more critical than ever. “I’m sure that, in Verona, there are many people fighting this disease that don’t even want to tell anyone,” Kerr says. “They have to know that it is a long-term approach. It has to be treated and they have to stay in recovery.”
If you know someone with a substance abuse problem, you can learn about getting them admitted to Integrity House here.