“Tough Love” at Step Denver: Addressing Addiction through Personal Responsibility and Community

As our country observes Mental Health Awareness Month this May, Philanthropy Roundtable is highlighting Step Denver, a residential recovery program dedicated to helping individuals rebuild their lives.

As a child of middle-class parents in Philadelphia, Paul Scudo never imagined he would struggle with addiction and mental health challenges. Then he began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol as a teenager. As he attended college and later accepted a job at a Fortune 500 company, his recreational drug use turned into a full-blown addiction that included stronger substances. Eventually, Scudo lost his marriage, family, friends and his job. He was convicted of a felony for possession of narcotics and found himself homeless for two years.

Thankfully, he found help. Scudo went through the recovery process, then began volunteering at the treatment center that led him to sobriety. Soon after, he came across Step Denver, later taking on the role of director of programs at the organization and then, in 2016, stepping in as executive director.

“My life’s mission is to help others recover and help rebuild their lives,” Scudo said.

Step Denver, which is funded in part by the Anschutz Foundation, the Coors Foundation and the Daniels Fund, provides men with nowhere else to turn the opportunity to overcome addiction through sobriety, work, accountability and community. The organization’s main goal is to help men in a state of desperation end their cycle of addiction, take control of their lives and transition to a safe and sober living environment where they can become productive, contributing members of their families and community. 

“At Step Denver, we have the accountability principle, showing ‘tough love’ by serving with professional, polite and compassionate demeanors,” said Scudo. “There’s no yelling, screaming or degrading anyone. We teach men that their choices, actions and behaviors have outcomes – positive outcomes with rewards or negative outcomes with consequences.” 

Step Denver’s four phases for success are based upon four pillars: sobriety, work, accountability and community. As a participant goes through the program phases, the organization emphasizes the values and principles of each pillar.

  • Phase One: Stability: The first objective of the program is to take a person out of “survival mode” by providing a safe, stable and secure place to start the recovery process. Participants are required to commit to getting and staying sober, with no compromises or excuses. 
  • Phase Two: Development: This stage provides the tools to ensure long-term sobriety. Recovery meetings and groups delve into the myriad reasons one drinks or uses and help develop coping skills to overcome those triggers. During this phase, the organization requires (and helps) every resident get and keep full-time, tax-paying, payroll employment. Step Denver teaches men how to be responsible and provide for themselves. This builds self-esteem and moves them closer to becoming self-sufficient members of society.
  • Phase Three: Transition: This stage is focused on building outside resources and creating a plan that will help participants transition to safe, sober living environments. During the transition phase, residents are required to teach personal responsibility, and to regain trust in others and in themselves. They are not allowed to take financial assistance from the government, families, friends, religious organizations or third parties. They also agree not to accept any government stipends such as food stamps, welfare, disability, etc. In addition to this, they save 20% of their income for savings and future stability.
  • Phase Four: Community: The transition to sober living homes is the final stage of Step Denver’s program. The homes allow a slow yet healthy re-entry into the community with additional privileges that maintain the structure and support of a peer recovery program. During this final phase, participants partner with a certified recovery support manager who is an alumnus of the program. They must attend recovery-oriented groups and participate in peer recovery fellowship meetings.

The organization serves 340 men each year and demonstrates impressive program outcomes. For example, 76% of alumni are currently employed, 65% report sustained sobriety, 89% live in stable housing and 81% of residents reported rebuilding healthy family relationships. 

One recent program participant named Michael reflected on his experience, saying, “I entered the program homeless, and one year later I finished my college degree. I could not have gotten here without the help of Step Denver. Step gave me the space, tools, safety and knowledge to get and stay sober. They literally saved my life.” 

As a testament to the organization’s success and leadership, including its board, Step Denver plans to expand its services to other communities.

“We’re planning a capital campaign to replicate other Step organizations in other communities across the country,” explained Scudo. “We envision a Step Phoenix, Step Albuquerque, and other cities which could contextualize Step programs in their area with the goal to replicate the program’s impact throughout communities across the country.” 

The Daniels Fund has been a supporter of the organization since 2002, with Bill Daniels, its founder, supporting this organization when he was alive. Senior Program Officer Owen McAleer recently discussed this long-term funding commitment, saying, “The founder and the current leadership [of Step Denver] have lived experience with drug, alcohol and homelessness. They have three pillars that align with Daniels Fund philosophy: work, sobriety and accountability – and they do an excellent job of rehabilitating men with proven long-term results.”

McAleer also applauded Step Denver’s stance on refusing to accept government money. “They realize that the more money you take from the government, the more like the government you become … ineffective. For all these reasons and more, I would certainly encourage funders to fund Step Denver,” he said.

If you are interested in helping accelerate this organization’s impact, please reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson at elarson@philanthropyroundtable.org

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