Working to stay clean

With a workforce of felons and addicts, Kevin McDonald is building businesses — and rebuilding lives — in Durham.
By Robert K. Otterbourg
 

Kevin McDonald moves around the main campus of the nonprofit he founded in Durham with the confidence of someone coaching a championship team. Nearly 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker, the president and CEO of Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers Inc. greets everyone by name, discussing their work and chatting them up about how and why they joined his team.

Numbering about 400, TROSA residents surrender much of their freedom for two years hoping to recover from long-term addiction — 15 years on average. Bound into a tightly knit therapeutic community, they try to lead one another to new lives through intense therapy, self-examination and mutual support akin to 12-step programs. But McDonald’s playbook includes something else: a job.

He believes that hard work — and the sense of self-worth that comes with it — is redemptive. “My first job at TROSA was to teach the work ethic to people with little to no successful work experience,” McDonald, 62, says. “To do this, we needed to show residents the importance of dressing neatly, being punctual for work and working hard — traits most never learned before.”

Everybody works, whether it’s preparing thousands of meals a day for residents, repairing its vehicles, maintaining the program’s 30 buildings or pitching in at one of its businesses. Along with grounds maintenance — including cleaning up after the State Fair — catering, Christmas-tree sales and other retail operations, TROSA operates the Triangle’s largest independent moving-and-storage company, all with a team assembled from unlikely recruits. Half of the residents never finished high school. Something like 90% have criminal records.

TROSA is North Carolina’s largest residential therapeutic program, with revenue (including grants, donations and in-kind contributions) of about $10 million a year. Competitors grumble that it wins business with low-ball bids. That’s not the case, insists Michael Keene, vice president of business operations. “We’re not the most expensive, nor are we the cheapest, and we don’t sell our services as a charity.” But there’s no denying that TROSA has a competitive advantage: Though it has a paid staff of 51 and an annual payroll of more than $2.3 million, its workers receive no wages. “Besides providing the basics of life — food, shelter, clothing and health-care services — we offer a safe haven,” McDonald counters. “For many residents, it’s the first time in their adult lives where street violence does not exist.”

One local minister complains that the program functions a lot like an antebellum plantation. But unlike slaves, residents are free to leave any time, Keene points out. A significant number do. Only 30% complete the two-year program. Until recently, TROSA could boast that 100% of its graduates left with a job. “The current job market made it a bit tougher for everyone to find jobs in 2009,” McDonald says, “but nearly all have found work.” Over the years, about 1,000 have joined the workforce.

One thing is certain: Everyone at TROSA has an interesting backstory — college grads work side-by-side with dropouts, convicted felons rub shoulders with former petty thieves, recovering alcoholics drink iced tea with former heroin addicts. Take McDonald. The son of a career Air Force officer, he had lived in five states and Germany by age 15. A heavy drinker in his teens, he was a drug addict before 20 and had several arrests for armed robbery by 32. That’s when he entered Delancey Street Foundation’s program in San Francisco. “They took me on and started teaching me different workplace and lifestyle skills.”

He stayed 12 years, absorbing the strategies that founders John Maher and Mimi Silbert used to rehabilitate addicts. “Delancey Street embraced Maher’s political vision, an agenda that engaged residents in the struggle for workers’ rights in the fields and factories of California,” writes Barbara Lau, who spent three months at TROSA in 2002 collecting an oral history of how and why it works. “Delancey Street residents became bodyguards for labor activist Cesar Chavez and marched in workers’ parades in San Francisco.”

During the ’80s, social-service and law-enforcement officials seeking alternatives to sending addicts to prison explored setting up similar programs in North Carolina. In 1987, concerned Greensboro residents persuaded Silbert to open a satellite site in the Triad. She tapped McDonald, who had moved up to one of the program’s top jobs, to get it going. Riley Butler, then executive director of the Durham Community Penalties Program, noticed his work and began courting him. But after about a year, with the 25-resident Greensboro operation running smoothly, McDonald was called back to San Francisco.

By 1992, he had decided to leave Delancey Street, which, unlike TROSA, had a volunteer staff. “After 12 years,” he recalls, “I was making $65 a month.” He landed a job in Los Angeles working with homeless gang members. “That was my wake-up call,” he told Lau, then a folklorist and ethnographer at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. “This was skid row L.A. … You had a bunch of people who didn’t give a shit.”

Butler had stayed in touch: “Riley was the person who never gave up and called me many times to ask me to come back to North Carolina,” McDonald says. “It just hit me on the right day at the right time,” he told Lau. “The urine smell was coming up through the windows at this place, you know, four stories up. The usefulness of what I was doing of helping people was zero.”

TROSA started in 1994 with $18,000 in the bank. McDonald hired two former Delancey Street residents to help him convert a dilapidated elementary school that the county had given to the program into its first dormitory. “I had this big school with broken windows, water in the basement, all the pipes busted. … It didn’t faze me.” In its first business venture, residents peeled potatoes and grew herbs for a gourmet food market. By 1996, they numbered 100. The following year, McDonald hired Keene from Delancey Street’s moving operation in Greensboro. Consider his résumé: A high-school dropout and longtime substance abuser, he had spent nearly 10 years in jail.

When he came aboard, TROSA, which had entered the business by buying the license of a bankrupt mover, had three trucks and an 18-wheeler. It now has 19 moving trucks and 38 moving-van trailers with five tractors to pull them. “We have gotten ourselves to the point where we now do over 4,500 residential and commercial local and long-distance moves a year,” Keene, 58, says.

TROSA employs a process that resembles a boot camp in its use of peer pressure and intense supervision. The two overriding rules are no violence (or threats of violence) and no booze or dope. Break them, you’re history. For the first 30 days, residents rise at 6:30 a.m. and work until 11 p.m., though that includes orientation, seminars and group therapy. After 30 days, they can receive and send mail. After 90 days, they get a phone call. At six months, those still aboard receive a portable CD player and a watch. At one year, family can visit. After 14 months, residents can visit their homes. At 18 months, they enroll in job-search classes. At 21 months, they start looking for a job, and if they get one, TROSA holds the money until they complete the program three months later.

The goal is not just to break the cycle of addiction but to convince residents that the entrepreneurial, pragmatic and acquisitive traits underpinning the American national character are worth cultivating. In addition to a job, there are other incentives for finishing the program, a car, for instance.

Some who complete the program are hired as salaried employees and stay on in TROSA housing. “I graduated last year,” Robyn Duff, 34, says, “but I decided to live in a TROSA transitional townhouse. Here I can come and go as I please.” Before moving to North Carolina with her then-husband, she had taught hearing-impaired students in Pennsylvania. For six years, she worked as a job coach and ran residential centers in Greensboro and Raleigh, but drugs and alcohol took over. She entered TROSA three years ago. As McDonald’s executive assistant, she orchestrates his workday and handles tours.

Gregg Fenn, 48, is staff-in-training. The son of an Episcopal minister, he graduated from a New England prep school. After getting his bachelor’s and master’s at University of Colorado, he spent 15 years with frozen-food maker Stouffer’s in Ohio, rising to junior vice president of research and development. But his cocaine addiction destroyed his career, along with his marriage to a physician. “In early 2008, I turned myself into TROSA and a few months later was named manager of the in-kind program.”

Fenn’s telephone solicitors employ scrounging techniques that would awe the Max Klinger character on TV’s M*A*S*H series — soliciting $3.5 million worth of goods last year. Whether toilet paper, shrimp for the Christmas dinner, vehicles or copying paper, the goods are used to feed, house and equip residents. Fenn’s seven co-workers learn their computer ABCs, telephone etiquette and how to do research on target companies via the Internet. After two years, they have become skilled solicitors, which leads to sales-related jobs once they leave. That raises another challenge for TROSA. Its managers face turnover of well over 100% every two years.

A larger and more long-term problem looms for TROSA — managing growth. “When I first got personally involved with TROSA 10 years ago, there was no long-range planning or fundraising,” says Jeff Clark, a managing general partner of The Aurora Funds Inc., a Durham-based venture-capital firm. “McDonald in many ways has the same drive as a corporate entrepreneur — along with lots of street smarts.” But like many entrepreneurs, he was slow to relinquish control.

“A few years ago, McDonald would dominate every board and staff meeting and do 80% of the talking,” says Tony Brown, a Duke University public-policy professor who has been chairman since 2008. “Nowadays, others participate, and McDonald speaks out less frequently.”

“It is hard to say what specifically happened when,” McDonald says. “It has been a growing process. I have built a management team that has made it possible for me to shift from doing mostly everything myself to delegating many day-to-day responsibilities.” Some have come from industry and other nonprofits. Keith Artin, 39, is one. With TROSA since 2001, he became chief operating officer in 2003, supervising several functions, including information technology and building maintenance, that once reported to McDonald. A University of Virginia grad with an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, Artin had worked for Robinson-Humphrey/Saloman Smith Barney in Atlanta structuring municipal-bond transactions totaling more than $1 billion. He is one of five senior managers who were paid between $55,000 and $90,000 in 2008, according to tax documents. McDonald made $147,000 last year.

Artin says TROSA wants to keep growing and plans to add two dorms to the six already on campus. “We’d also like to increase our revenues so we are less dependent on outside financial resources,” he says. Adds Brown: “Our challenge is to make sure that we get even better in every phase of the operations. There’s no place for mediocrity, particularly when the workers are addicts and felons. We’ve got to continually show our customers that we can do the work better than our competitors.”

“Because of who they were and where they come from,” McDonald says, “our residents hold each other accountable and work in teams. There is significant peer pressure to do the right thing, so theft is not common.” As he told Lau in 2002, “People don’t use our services because we’re drug addicts. They use them because we do a good job.”

Robert K. Otterbourg is a freelance writer who lives in Durham.