Dozens of photos line the walls of John Volken’s Newton office.
The images – about 45 of them – portray visits to African orphanages the Surrey philanthropist gives money to.
A former business tycoon, someone like Volken might be excused if he spent his retirement on a beach in Hawaii, rather than using his own money to run a residential addiction treatment centre.
“It’s just what I do,” he said.
Volken is the driving force behind the $80-million John Volken Academy (JVA) in Newton.
Right now, there are about 50 people trying to rebuild their lives in his academy – and they come from all kinds of backgrounds and families.
“We have the son of a senator, we have a couple sons of billionaires, awesome families. But drugs are in every family, eh?” Volken told the Now-Leader. “When they come on board, they don’t even want to look at you. They’re so down on themselves because even though they used, they didn’t like it. They liked the effect of it, but they felt bad because it’s against their values. They’re stealing and lying and manipulating, they’re using and feel great, afterward they feel bad.”
The change in people is amazing, he added.
“When you see people coming in, they’re really, in a way, dilapidated human beings. They feel bad about themselves, they’re depressed, totally down on themselves and when they graduate they are leaders, they are strong. We don’t change anybody, really, we just take the toxic out of them and they become what they’re meant to do.”
Volken has a simple goal.
It’s about turning “takers into givers.”
Volken is a German immigrant who rose from rags to riches by creating the United Furniture Warehouse chain.
Although he sold his business in 2004 to begin giving back in a big way, his desire to help others actually stems from his childhood.
“I lived in an orphanage for a while. It was fun, I enjoyed it,” recalled Volken. “I had 30 brothers and I always said, ‘One day I’m going to have an orphanage.’”
Today, while he donates to 70 African orphanages every month, he has always imagined opening his own orphanage in Canada. Once he realized that wasn’t going to happen, he looked for other ways to help society.
He spent many nights in Downtown Vancouver handing out sandwiches to people living on the street, but said he quickly discovered there’s no shortage of charities serving food to the vulnerable there.
He recalled asking friends who worked with Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission what he could do to help.
“They said, ‘life skills.’ Guys, they go through detox centres and they say, ‘Now you’re sober, go get a job.’ But they don’t know how,” Volken said.
“They’re scared in many cases, just to go to the bank. Stuff that for you and me is nothing. To them it’s a big thing. So, life skills. So, I said, ‘How the heck do you teach life skills?’”
And just like that the focus of his philanthropy switched from hunger to addiction.
All about ‘life skills’
The City of Surrey approved the first phase of Volken’s “life skills academy” in 2009, and in 2015 a new building was completed that greatly expanded the operation.
Today, it is one of 55 licensed recovery homes in Surrey.
“Those who don’t know better say, ‘Oh, there’s no beds,’” said Volken, who estimated there are hundreds of beds available in Surrey.
Of the 80 licensed spots at JVA, he said, there are roughly 30 beds open right now.
Those in the program help out in the Price Pro store at 6911 King George Boulevard and live in homes next to it. The intensive, long-term addiction program for young adults is modelled around the concept of “therapeutic communities,” said Volken.
“They started in the ’50s,” he said of such communities. “A bunch of drug addicts got together and fixed themselves. They pooled their resources and everything.”
He visited several such sites, which he says people generally stayed at for a minimum of two years. He visited one in Italy that is considered one of the largest therapeutic communities in the world.
|John Volken at the academy’s opening in 2015 with featured celebrated philosopher Deepak Chopra.|
Likewise, JVA is a long-term treatment program and people generally stay two years. And unlike many private facilities that charge exorbitant monthly fees, the JVA charges a $5,000 intake fee and “that’s it,” said Volken.
“The foundation pays for it, I had to sell some buildings to pay for this,” he said. “So it’s probably, as far as the facility is concerned, as good as any high-priced one.”
In addition to the main building, Volken said JVA owns five houses behind it, which works to create a “campus” of recovery.
“One, we’re building for a transitional home for our students. When they leave and graduate, they can live there for cheap and have a job,” he said. “They need to gather strength for about five years.”
The academy also boasts a full-size gym, classrooms, a library, and a garden, among other amenities.
It’s been a rewarding, yet emotional journey, Volken said in reflection.
“We’re dealing with lives, not just changing lives,” he said. “Sometimes that’s tragic. But it’s very rewarding. I have a stack that high of letters, ‘Thank you for saving my life’ or my son’s life or daughter’s life.
“People, quite often, say if it wasn’t for this place, I would be lucky to be in jail, I’d probably be dead.”
Addiction is a “chronic disease” that has killed too many, he added.
“It’s the brain – it needs to be rewired,” Volken said. “And that takes time. There is no magic pill to cure addiction.
“Not yet, anyways.”
Attitude is key
At Volken’s Newton treatment centre, there’s a no-nonsense approach to recovery.
“They need to have some skin in it,” Volken said, acknowledging that doesn’t appeal to some addicts.
Many recovery operations, he said, work on sobriety alone and patients are free to wander as they please throughout the day.
“If you’re not predisposed to addiction, 30 days might be OK,” Volken mused. “But ours, you should hear them, they say they spent over $100,000 on recovery and nothing works. This, it’s practically free, and it works, because they get the life skills that are needed.
“To get in here all you need is to be committed to change your life and number two, be able and willing to participate in the program, and between the ages of 18 to 28, sometimes 32 or whatever we’re not that strict about it,” he added.
Also unlike some other operations, the people in the program can’t leave the grounds for the first 18 months.
Volken said he’s seen “miracles” happen.
“It’s all worthwhile. But it takes time,” he said. “When they come in I don’t tell them, look, it’s a two-year program. It’s not a two-year program. It’s a change-your-life program.”
Volken’s program involves six steps, much of which focuses on manners and respect.
“The first step is just a 30-day blackout period,” he explained. “If you’re still there and committed to the program you automatically become the next one. But the further you go in the program, the tougher it becomes.”
Attitude is key.
“I teach my guys all the time, I’m not interested in the stuff they’re doing very good, I’m interested where they don’t do good because that’s where they relapse,” he said.
“They say, ‘Oh he’s a really good worker, or really articulates well. But he’s short-tempered.’ That’s the issue we have. He’s short-tempered, he tells his boss up yours, no job, relapses. We have to deal with those issues so they don’t relapse.”
In a nutshell, Volken said the program teaches its students to learn to handle the tough things in life.
“They learn to handle the stuff but there’s always issues, this isn’t right and that isn’t fair. Good. Life isn’t fair. Get used to it,” he said firmly.
In addition to helping students within the academy find recovery, Volken said the JVA is also “on the cutting edge” of addictions research.
“We have an office from SFU and St. Paul’s Hospital,” he said. “They’re doing active research into addiction and they have an office in our building next door. They are doing a lot of good. We are more and more sophisticated in doing it right.
“They developed some virtual-reality where they go to school for their triggers, what triggers them to relapse,” Volken added.
“They’ve come up with a whole bunch of different ways of looking at addiction or addiction recovery. With us, longterm, it helps them on a continued basis, to see the students.”
Dr. Faranak Farzan is chair of the “embedded research laboratory.”
“We have several projects under way in collaboration with John Volken Academy,” Farzan told the Now-Leader.
“For example, in partnership with several scientists across SFU, we are developing neurotherapeutic solutions, through developing computerized cognitive training technologies tailored for students of the academy.
“This software technology is now under (the) validation process, upon completion of which it will be utilized across the academy,” Farzan added. “We are also developing technologies to predict chance of relapse in students of the academy. We are utilizing a combination of technologies including visual, augmented reality and biosensor technologies.”
It’s expected a prototype will be “ready for validation studies this year.”
JVA, said Farzan, is “one of the most affordable long-term addiction treatment centres in Canada and the United States.”
Volken has also donated money to support the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) in the midst of the ongoing opioid crisis. Last year, the JVA committed $1 million to BCSSU, which aims to close the gap between research and practice, to improve the health system for those struggling with substance abuse. The donation from the academy will help promote a recovery-oriented system of care across the province, according to a release.
In addition to the millions invested locally, Volken estimated his foundation has spent $13 million on its Seattle location, and $12 million on its ranch in Phoenix, AZ. “We’re soon going to Utah to look at places to start there,” he added, noting that will be the fourth academy, once complete.
“Then the next one probably somewhere in California. We’re increasing in numbers all the time, and I would hate to have somebody want to come in but there’s no bed.”
Six students graduated from the Volken recovery program on March 4.
Among them was 26-year-old Dylan James MacDonald, who spent 24 months in the Surrey academy.
MacDonald, a former heroin and methamphetamine addict, described the difference in himself as “night and day.”
“It’s pretty much been more than I could’ve imagine, honestly,” he told the Now-Leader at his graduation ceremony. “I kind of came in not really knowing what to expect. I honestly knew very little about this place. All I knew was my life was just a mess and I was going to die very quickly if I didn’t do something.
“I started drinking when I was 16 pretty heavily, then opiates started around 17 or 18,” he added.
MacDonald said he’s undergone “a lot of self-reflecting, a lot of learning to trust people, learning to connect people, and learning to be honest both with myself and with others” during his two years at JVA.
What did he learn?
“I learned, I think, the value of human connection,” he mused. “The value of asking for help, and how crucial that’s going to be for my sobriety and my happiness going forward. I learned about my own personal walls and defences, and the signs and awareness behind when those are acting up. I learned to trust people.”
Two days after his graduation, MacDonald was headed for Australia, to work for at least a year.
“Then we’ll see where life takes me after that,” he said, noting he’s headed to the area near the Great Barrier Reef to work in hospitality.
“Nothing too crazy but my dream is kind of to travel around, so I’m sort of living my dream at this point.”
But it’s not just the students who grow inside the recovery academy’s walls. Volken said he has grown as well.
“I learned compassion, for sure. I learned patience,” Volken mused.
“I don’t expect when a new individual comes in, joining the program, I don’t expect him or her to be a choir boy. They are what they are, the drug influenced them….
“Some people say just lock ’em up and let them get sober. It’s way more than that.”
Files from Bala Yogesh