By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
‘The Stone’ prepares to celebrate its 40th year
For four decades, Stepping Stone — the “little rehab that could” located at 3767 Central Ave., in City Heights — has served as a drug and alcohol recovery oasis for the LGBT community.
It all began when City Heights was one of the most crime-ridden and run-down neighborhoods of San Diego; decades before the major development that turned 40th Street into the 15-freeway throughway; long before the Mid-City Police Headquarters was built just two blocks away and deterred some of the crime; and more than two decades before the one-time eyesore became the jewel of the neighborhood that it is today.
“To be a gay and lesbian person to have to come to those conditions, it was absolutely unacceptable to me from the moment I walked in here,” said Cheryl Houk, who served as executive director from 1989 until 2006 and recently returned to the helm.
What started out 40 years ago as five run-down homes, “a lumpy courtyard,” and a garage on a two-parcel lot, evolved into a colorful fortress of safety and hope for the LGBT community and a national model for the recovery community.
“We went from the worst to the best,” Houk said. “The amount of love and support that went into this, and still continues to — because of people being thankful for what it brings to the community and themselves and they keep coming back to — is amazing.”
Stepping Stone’s four buildings are built high and out to the edge of each of the four sides of the property. The grand courtyard in the middle has as its focal point a staircase in the shape of a high-heeled shoe. Houk said the staircase looked like a shoe on the architect’s drawings, so she asked if they could really make it look like one.
“And they did,” she said. “It was all about Priscilla [Queen of the Desert] at the time and so indicative of the culture. Everyone loves the high heel.”
The residence area consists of four modules, each with two bedrooms with four beds each and separated by a bathroom and shower room. Male residents currently take up three of the four modules and females always have their own space. Just across the courtyard is an oversized community room — with an attached full-size kitchen — complete with a huge fireplace, cathedral ceilings, a piano and an eating area.
That heel — and the celebrations held beneath it — is one of the things Program Manager Chris Mueller said he is most proud of.
Mueller, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, is a return graduate and one of Stepping Stone’s biggest success stories. Mueller said an award he received during his residency 17 years ago gave him the boost in confidence he needed to turn his life completely around.
“I went back to college and got my undergrad and my masters,” he said. The award hangs in his office above the courtyard to this day, to remind him of his journey.
“For me, the courtyard reinforces the idea of a community that’s open, and you can’t help but feel supported while you are here,” said board president Michael Moore.
“Recovery doesn’t have to be somewhere where you go and it is dark and dim conditions,” he continued. “I remember Cheryl saying once, ‘You can get sober and you deserve the best possible environment to make those changes.’”
Moore also pointed out a bell affixed to a pillar.
“It gets rung during certain occasions but for any new resident, their first experience in the community, the bell is rung and everyone who is on property comes down and welcomes the new resident,” Moore said.
Though not a Stepping Stone graduate herself, Houk just recently celebrated over three decades of sobriety and is happy to share her experiences.
“I talk to the residents a lot and I know all their names,” she said. “I make sure to touch base with them and let them know I am just like them. One of the things I say all the time is, ‘You made mistakes, you are not a mistake.’”
The staff has made sure to pay homage to its past. The buildings “White House,” “Grand Central” and “Animal House” are named after the houses that previously stood on the property. The “Bay View” building is named for the temporary Golden Hill location that housed their residents while the new facility was being built. Two resident lounges are named after cats that once lived there. Two cement artifacts, both with “Stepping Stone” inscribed on them, were retained and reinstalled. The shovel used for the current facilities’ groundbreaking ceremony is mounted proudly on a public wall.
And one of the most poignant trips through memory lane is the donor wall, located just inside the courtyard entrance, which is filled with tiles of various shapes and sizes that honor the contributions of past supporters and friends.
Moore said they have future plans for the wall, geared to not only to kickoff the 40th anniversary, but act as a fundraiser as well.
“This month we begin selling commemorative tiles, which will be added to the wall of our courtyard in a ceremony this spring,” he explained. “These tiles range from $300 – $4,000, depending on size, and allow individuals and organizations to show their investment in our programs and leave a message for all current and future residents and visitors to see.”
Moore said the San Diego Foundation’s Gay and Lesbian Fund recently purchased a large tile to show their support of the drive. Those interested in purchasing a tile can call The Stone or visit its website.
“For many people that complete the program, this is their home,” Mueller said. “They’re constantly coming back. They’ll come in and have dinner with us, or meet with staff. They really love this property and they are always welcome.”
Houk said she and her staff could not do without the many graduates who return to offer their time as board members, sponsors, mentors, drivers, and general facility and kitchen helpers. Many have also joined the organized Alumni Association, which has raised money for things like the television and new carpet in “Tigger Lounge.”
But you don’t have to be in recovery or part of the program to work at Stepping Stone or even volunteer for the organization, however. Many are family members, friends or just concerned and grateful citizens.
Stepping Stone exists almost solely on federal and county funding, outside grants and donations, and the generous contributions of others — often those who must first get past their many prejudices about recovery in order to do so. It is important to note that today, very little of the money used for operating expenses comes from treatment or sober living rent income.
Events are a big part of The Stone. Thanks to all the generous local organizations that provide tickets — San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus, FilmOut San Diego, Diversionary Theatre, The Old Globe — many residents get to enjoy something they haven’t attended in ages. Volunteers currently use their own cars to shuttle people around, but a van is in the works. The bi-yearly graduations, held in the courtyard for residents who have completed the six-month in-house and after care program, are open to the public and something the staff very much looks forward to. The next graduation is Feb. 19.
It hasn’t always been easy for nonprofit, even in the years since the redevelopment, but as some might say, thanks to the “Big Book,” it keeps on going.
Just last June, the board of directors released an open letter to the community to reaffirm their commitment to the organization, in part to combat some of the rumors brewing that Stepping Stone was in such disarray it may close.
“While it is true that our continued operation depends on support from the community, and always has, there is no immediate threat to stop offering services nor are there currently any plans in place to shut down or to be acquired. We are committed to our mission to continue to provide services that focus on the LGBTQ communities of San Diego,” the letter stated.
But today — with a new board president at the helm and the heralded return last November of its revered executive director — Stepping Stone has returned to its former thriving state. Donations are up, San Diego Human Dignity Foundation just gave them $20,000, and while calls for donations and the acquisition of additional funding will always be in the works, the board and its administration are sure footed.
And as they begin the planning for their 40th anniversary gala in October and a special alumni homecoming this summer where they hope to bring together as many graduates as possible, the board and staff of Stepping Stone are in the midst of laying the groundwork for the organization’s viability for generations to come.
To learn more about Stepping Stone, visit steppingstonesd.org. Their website hosts a wealth of information. If you or someone you know needs help, visit the site, leave a message or make a call to the staff or a board member. Their phone number is 619-278-0777.
Read a profile of Stepping Stone’s executive director, Cheryl Houk, who just returned in November after a 10-year hiatus, here.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.