Drawing strength from community: St. Anthony Foundation staff member opens up about his recovery journey
September 19, 2023
If you talk to Robert, a 66-year old San Francisco native who greets guests at St. Anthony’s Dining Room at 121 Golden Gate Avenue, you’ll immediately notice his exuberance and optimism.
“The job in the Dining Room is what’s making me thrive. When I wake up in the morning, I want to go to work,” says Robert.
For many years, however, Robert struggled with addiction. He was cash-strapped and sometimes dined at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, which provides 1,700 hot meals daily to San Franciscans in need. “I remember the smiling faces of the volunteers and the way their energy was,” he recalls.
Eventually, Robert mustered all the strength he had and got clean and sober. His life turned around then. He got a job working for a subsidized housing provider in the city and started leading a Bible study at a local church, never missing a Sunday—not even when the San Francisco 49ers won the Superbowl, he adds.
But 13 years later, the unspeakable happened: Robert got cancer. And as he took the prescription medication as part of his recommended treatment, he got hooked on opiates and Xanax. He lost control and lost his faith. One day, ashamed and depressed, Robert jumped out of a second-story window, intent on ending his life.
Luckily, he survived. He was transported to the emergency room of a local hospital, where the medical team changed his life.
“I can see God’s hand in it,” says Robert. “I was weak and sick and hurt. I can’t tell you what it felt like to have my front teeth broken, and I was broken spiritually. The people there nourished me back. They decided to help me without any money.”
His treating doctor, in particular, gave him a reason to live. “She told me, ‘You know what, Robert? Yesterday, I was talking to my husband about you, and I couldn’t go to sleep without thinking how you were doing.’ And I thought, wow, if that lady cares about me, I’m gonna do something about me.”
After discharge, he got admitted to Father Alfred Center, St. Anthony’s free, year-long residential addiction treatment program for men where, once again, the power of community carried him through. “This is where the love came in. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I got stronger every single day.”
Even when he got COVID and had to isolate in a separate room, Robert’s peers wrote him letters to cheer him up. The Dining Room executive chef, Chef Pepe, brought him dinner and a sobriety chip, since he couldn’t attend a birthday meeting in person. And Wayne Garnett, former head of Community Safety Services and current Companion Lead who went through Father Alfred’s recovery program, too, got Robert to take better care of his health.
Encouraged by St. Anthony’s CEO Nils Behnke, Robert also started running. Twice a week, Robert and his peers would get a ride to Crissy Field from the director at Father Alfred Center, Kenneth Lofton, and they’d all run together. Robert stuck to it and eventually lost 50 pounds.
Then, he got offered a job in the Dining Room, even though he was self-conscious about his broken teeth as a result of his fall. “Thank God I got to keep the mask on during the interview,” he jokes. “I don’t think I would have had the courage to apply anywhere else. But my work skills are crazy good, especially when I’m sober. And now my teeth are fixed.”
Robert has been in recovery for 15 months now. He works in the Dining Room five days a week and mentors men in early recovery; he even saved up money and rented a place of his own in the Tenderloin. He also has a trusted mentor, Tiffany Copp, as part of Father Alfred’s Companionship program.
“Even though I was 65 years old, I got lit up, man, and I’m so excited about life!” he says, looking back. “People say, ‘Wow, Bob, you look great, and I can encourage them if they’re struggling. Being of service is my thing.’” He still remembers that early morning when he found an old friend in the throes of a relapse on the sidewalk. Robert half-carried him to St. Anthony’s and helped him enter Father Alfred’s recovery program. Now, that friend is nearly a year sober, working at St. Anthony’s and thriving.
Robert readily shares advice with others who are struggling. “Do 90 meetings in 90 days, get a sponsor and work the steps. It’s a simple formula. It interweaves and interlocks when it’s prayer and meditation and being involved in the AA community. Build a house on a true foundation, not sand. That is the greatest thing I can tell anybody.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline any time of day or night. The Crisis Text Line also provides free confidential support via text message to people in crisis, 24/7, when they dial 741741.