Now-vacant Vergennes nursing home eyed as treatment center

VERGENNES — The former Briarwood Manor nursing home at 1 Alden Place in Vergennes could soon be the headquarters of a 19-bed residential treatment facility for adolescent girls and young women who are battling drug addiction and/or “self-injury behaviors.”
Owners of Bradford-based Valley Vista — a private, 80-bed alcohol and chemical dependency treatment center serving men, women and adolescents — confirmed on Thursday their plans to acquire the 9,146-square-foot Alden Place building on 3.9 acres, a property currently listed for sale by Redstone at $1.2 million.
“It has just about everything we need,” Valley Vista co-owner Rick DiStefano said of the former nursing home, which has been vacant for around two years. “The building is extremely attractive and ideal for what we want to do.”
Operating as the Helping Others Pursue Empowerment (HOPE) program, the facility would employ more than 20 doctors, nurses, clinicians, counselors and other professionals to help adolescent girls and women (ages 13 to 22) move away from self-destructive behavior — primarily drug addiction and/or the practice of self-injury, usually manifested through cutting and burning oneself.
Dr. Patrick L. DeChello, an internationally recognized expert in understanding and treating individuals with self-injury behaviors, is co-designing the program with Valley Vista. Plans call for him to serve as clinical consultant to the program.
DiStefano pointed to a 2005 National Mental Health Association study indicating that one out of every 200 teen girls between the ages of 13 and 19 regularly practices “self-injurious behaviors.” As such, there is a big demand for services and counseling for young people engaging in these activities.
Valley Vista opened its Bradford facility in 2004 — initially just to women. It began offering services to adolescents in 2005, then opened to men in 2010, according to DiStefano. The Bradford location is usually 85 percent to 90 percent full, with the vast majority of the patients hailing from Vermont, according to DiStefano. Valley Vista has a contract with the state of Vermont to deliver 17,000 “bed days” annually to Medicaid patients. Other clients are primarily residents of other New England states and New York. Since Valley Vista’s programming emphasizes family participation in a patient’s treatment, it is important that kin be able to access the organization’s facilities without too much hardship. And that’s one of the reasons Valley Vista targeted Vergennes as a logical spot to expand its programming.
“Chittenden County is a huge area for our patients to come from,” DiStefano said. “The western corridor of Vermont, from Bennington, Rutland through Middlebury, Vergennes and Burlington — that’s where about 80 percent of our (in-state) patients come from.”
DiStefano also believes Valley Vista will have an easier time recruiting staff in the Vergennes area. He noted it took the organization quite a while to achieve its full complement of 100 workers in Bradford. He doesn’t expect such a struggle at the Vergennes location, for which he and his colleagues have already developed an affinity.
“We fell in love (with Vergennes),” DiStefano said, noting the Alden Place setting overlooks a natural wooded area while also having access to municipal water and sewer facilities.
But DiStefano acknowledged some Vergennes residents might be wary of the Valley View program, given the fact that some of the clients will be fighting drug addiction. City residents have been quite attuned to that issue and have shown up in droves at recent police-sponsored meetings to help Vergennes confront drug-related crime and try to prevent it before it happens.
Valley View officials have scheduled an open house on Tuesday, Dec. 18, from 3 to 6:30 p.m., at 1 Alden Place to explain plans for the facility, including security.
DiStefano said the Vergennes operation would, like Valley Vista, be a “staff secure facility, with no locked doors.”
“We believe the patient needs to be here of their own free will, and wants to participate in the program and have the desire to get sober and straight,” DiStefano said. “If they make a choice that they don’t want to be here, we will help make arrangements to get them back to where they came from. We will try to do various interventions to try to keep them here, but patients know … if they are not ready for what we have to offer, we will make arrangements to get them back to their homes.”
That said, DiStefano stressed the Vergennes location would be a residential facility where all patients would be told they needed to remain on the campus. They would be escorted whenever they leave the building and would have to be accompanied by a Valley View staffer when attending outside appointments, DiStefano added. He said it is “very rare” that a patient sneaks out of the facility. If such situations do occur, local and state police are contacted, according to DiStefano.
Bradford officials and citizens expressed some trepidation almost a decade ago after the Valley Vista proposal came to the fore quite suddenly, recalled Ted Unkles, the town’s selectboard chairman. He said Valley Vista quietly negotiated a deal for what was then a still-functioning Brookside Nursing Home.
“Our selectboard learned about it in the Caledonian-Record (the local newspaper),” Unkles said.
As a result, he said there was a “huge amount of community resistance, for the way it happened as much as for what they were doing.”
But Unkles acknowledged few problems since Valley Vista opened its doors.
“It is fair to say that a lot of fears the community had about the facility have not been realized,” Unkles said, calling Valley Vista a good employer with minimal security issues.
The community and Valley Vista formed a community relations committee to discuss and troubleshoot any problems arising from the 80-bed facility. That committee initially met monthly, then quarterly, then annually and now rarely meets as a result of their having been no significant negative community impacts from Valley Vista, according to DiStefano.
“We have an excellent track record,” he said. “We want to be a good neighbor.”
And being a good neighbor in the Little City would include making special accommodations when possible for Vergennes-area patients and making Valley Vista staff available for occasional substance abuse education programs at Vergennes Union High School, DiStefano said. He expects the program to enjoy a good relationship with the Counseling Service of Addison County and other outpatient mental health and medical services that Valley View patients tend to use once they leave treatment. Stays for Valley View patients can range from a couple of weeks to 60 days, according to DiStefano.
As the Addison Independent went to press, Valley View had sent out an informational letter to residents living within a two-block radius of 1 Alden Place. DiStefano hopes to see a lot of residents at the Dec. 18 open house.
Editor’s note: Look for a story in Thursday’s edition in which city officials and residents react to early reports of Valley Vista’s interest in the Briarwood Manor facility.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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