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A friend of the Stone

Posted: January 22nd, 2016 | Cover stories, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Cheryl Houk returns to pursue her life’s work

The executive director who led the region’s only LGBT-centric drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for 17 years and was responsible for the facility’s multi-million-dollar transformation into a residential model for the nation, has returned to her post after a decade away.

Cheryl Houk first took the helm at Stepping Stone in 1989, when it consisted of four dilapidated buildings on two parcels of property in City Heights.

“When I first took a tour of it, [its condition] was not acceptable to me,” she said sternly. “I am a lesbian. I am in recovery, and it perpetuated that that’s all we deserved — the worst conditions — like that’s really who we are in life, the bottom of the barrel. That’s what we get.

“Well it was my mission to change that,” she said.

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Executive Director Cheryl Houk (inset) returned last November to the recovery castle she built in City Heights. (Courtesy Stepping Stone)

And change that she did. Houk took the organization from an operating income of $125,000 in 1989 to nearly $2 million when she left the job in 2006.

In between, she and the board of directors launched a capital campaign and raised enough money ($2.6 million) to completely demolish the buildings on the property and start anew in 2000, with a beautiful multi-story, multi-purpose facility that has a fully operational kitchen, administrative offices, counseling offices, recreational areas, and room for 31 beds.

And they did it all despite their many detractors, including their own consultants, many of whom never thought they could make it happen.

Three architectural plans were offered and Houk chose the most expensive one; because they only had one shot to do it right.

“I picked the best drawing and it had the full courtyard,” she said. “The cheapest drawing had everything all scrunched in more. The courtyard is really, really important. The stairway was made as an entrance and it is shaped like a high heel.”

She noted two other important aspects of the facility that weren’t on the less expensive architectural drawings — an upstairs conference room and a downstairs restroom space that opens to the courtyard and serves visitors.

“One of the things that is so exciting about our facility here is that it isn’t a hospital-like atmosphere,” said current board President Michael Moore. “The architecture helps create a safe space that is closed but not sealed. The courtyard adds a lot to that whole feeling.”

“We have fundraisers out there and the whole property comes alive,” said Chris Mueller, LCSW, the site’s program manager.

Now fifteen years old, the facility is still one of the top residential facilities in the nation.

Houk said the LGBT community, the housing industry and several local politicians — Chris Kehoe, Ron Roberts and former mayor Maureen O’Connor — were instrumental in helping make their dream facility come true, and O’Connor even surprised them with a $100,000 gift from her husband’s foundation at their capital campaign kick off.

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(l to r) Cheryl Houk and then City Councilmember Christine Kehoe stand on the porch of Stepping Stone’s original main entrance. (Courtesy Cheryl Houk)

Six years after the ribbon cutting and dedication of the new building, with Stepping Stone running like a finely oiled machine, Houk decided to take a job in Palm Springs in the drug and alcohol prevention field and finish a book that had long been nipping at her heels.

The book, called “What Are You Thinking?” was self-published in 2008 by Silvermind Publishing and is available on Amazon.

“[My book] came out of me from the universe and I’ve been studying positive thinking since I was 24 years old,” Houk said. “I was teaching orientation to new counselors for all of San Diego. Many are in recovery and they want to give back and some didn’t do well in school, so they are thinking, ‘I don’t belong in here. I’m not smart enough to be doing this.’ So I address how important it is to support yourself through positive affirmations and saying ‘I can do this,’ rather than, ‘I can’t.’”

About five years after Houk left, Stepping Stone entered into a difficult five-year phase. The current board, led by Moore, had been reaching out to Houk for consultations on various matters, and when a particularly difficult contract — that Houk had originally written herself — was offering some challenges, he decided to ask Houk and her partner Patricia out to dinner.

“It became pretty clear, pretty fast that the timing might be right to ask Cheryl to come back,” Moore said. “I left dinner thinking we needed to make it happen and hoping she would be interested in returning.”

“I can tell when the universe is putting a pull in my direction and I couldn’t ignore it,” Houk said. “And I know what it takes to do this job. To try and search for someone and then give them the ‘Stepping Stone 101’ would have taken up valuable time; time that was needed to put us on stable ground immediately.”

Houk’s return in November of 2015 has been met with great fanfare and excitement throughout the region.

“Stepping Stone provides vital support to members of the LGBT community, and for years Cheryl was the driving force behind the organization’s growth,” said Toni Atkins, Speaker of the California Assembly. “I think she is one of the most committed people I know. Her return as Stepping Stone celebrates its 40th anniversary is great news not only for those facing recovery from addiction, but for our community as a whole.”

Benny Cartwright, a board member at Stepping Stone since 2011, served alongside Houk on the board and said it was helpful to hear the insight her prior experience as executive director gave her in the meetings.

“I’ve never met someone with such a passion for the recovery community, and view Stepping Stone specifically as Cheryl,” he said. “Her return is the boost the agency needs as we continue on a path toward stability.

Moore said that Houk expanded the organization’s services, and she consistently adapted their programs to meet the “ever-changing needs” of treating addiction. He pointed to her deep-rooted connections within the community as well.

“Her positive impact on the staff and our residents was immediate,” he said.

“I love being back here,” Houk said. “It is my mission, it’s my place. I have 32 years of sobriety, 33 at the end of this month and it’s in my heart to serve people.

“When I went to get in recovery, I went to a 12-step meeting in a rural area and it just wasn’t safe for me to be out as a lesbian, so I had to go to those meetings and hide who I was. That is still going on today — you are still not safe being a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person. You’re just not.

“Recovery is really grounded in honesty and your ability to be honest, and willing, and feel safe.

“That’s why I know the importance of this door,” she said.

“I’m thrilled to be back. I’m pinching myself.”

Part Two: Read about more about the Stepping Stone organization and their plans for celebrating their 40th year, here.

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at morgan@sdcnn.com.

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