How My 9 Year-old Girl Changed Our Drug And Alcohol Program Forever

Gabi Changed Our Drug And Alcohol Program Forever

My name is Mark Scheeren, and I am the Chairman of the St. Jude Retreats, a non-12 Step residential program for drug and alcohol use. I have three children: 2 boys and a girl. My daughter’s name is Gabi, and she is all gold to me; a wonderful, smart, beautiful, and interesting young lady. Anyone with a young daughter understands the value and color they bring to a father’s (and mother’s) world. Not that my boys do not, but the experience with a daughter is just different. As her dad, I have always felt a natural protective instinct and emotional connection with her.

So what does this have to do with St Jude’s?

As Chairman, I set in motion an important program initiative in 2009; it was called the Gabi Standard and it changed forever my perspective on how St. Jude’s would help people with substance use issues. Gabi, who was eight at the time, was the inspiration for this new level of care being bestowed upon my guests.

The Gabi Standard

I was sitting in a management meeting with members of my research team one afternoon in October 2009 discussing our approach and some new program updates and it hit me. Quite out of the blue, I began to think about my daughter; as I said, she was eight years old at the time and quite innocent and charming. But my mind wandered further and I began to imagine a variety of somewhat uncomfortable scenarios: what if she was older and was in need of the St. Jude Program and was a guest at one of my retreats? What if she was 14 and was shooting heroin, or was 16 and on the streets, like so many of our guests had been when I first met them? What if she was struggling with a crack habit in her teen years and had left the sphere of my parental protection? And further, what if she called asking St. Jude’s for help, and was desperate to change her life? What if she was like the thousands of women (and men) we have seen here at St. Jude’s, who have lost their way and were terrified to make those first emotional and mental changes that are so crucial during the first few weeks of their stay with us? What if my precious daughter needed that help? And then that thought expanded to – would I be perfectly comfortable to have her stay at one of my retreats while I sat home, waiting for her return? Would I feel comfortable with the staff, the food, the facility, and the coursework as I sat at home, powerless to help?

Some of my relatives have come through the St. Jude Program through the years and with great success I am happy to say. But never one of my own children. This new line of thinking put a new light on what I expected out of my staff and their commitment to provide the best program in the world for substance use. I had my struggles with substance use, for sure, and, being that I was the first guest in 1989, I certainly understand how important the program and the retreat experience are. But again, the perspective of imagining my daughter as a lost soul, and as a guest, intensified my desire to have St. Jude’s be the best program in existence. I thought of the thousands of parents who toured our retreats, or spoke to one of our guest service consultants on the phone, and then made a reservation for their loved one, and the wonderful results this brought. I realized in the lens of my daughter’s image how utterly important it was to make sure St. Jude’s always did its job effectively and with the utmost compassion and competence. It was at that moment that I decided to act as if every guest that came to St. Jude’s for help was my daughter, and I wanted all my staff to see it that way too. That was the initiative – The Gabi Standard. Only the best would do.

The answer to my initial question in 2009 – would I feel comfortable with my daughter coming through St. Jude’s – was yes. Yes, I would. But that didn’t mean that improvements couldn’t be made. I got all our staff together, did a series of workshops and brainstorming sessions based on the new Gabi Standard. Everyone present was charged with reflecting on the precious people in their lives and then they had to place those special people (mentally) within the retreat experience. Then they were asked whether their respective division in St. Jude’s was up to their own Gabi Standard. If not, changes were made to improve the guest experience, making sure it met that new higher standard. While they all agreed that they too would send their child to St. Jude’s, this new line of thinking made them motivated to make improvements nonetheless. Since that time, all three retreats have been nearly completely renovated from the inside out, the program is in its 14th rewrite (we are always learning as a research organization!), and the guest satisfaction rates continue to climb.

When you look at the picture of Gabi and me, know that nothing would be more important to me than my daughter’s success and happiness, especially if she were in a vulnerable, sad, or frightened state. And every day we keep the Gabi Standard in the forefront of the St. Jude Retreat evolution, as a commitment to the future for those who will need the St. Jude Program in the years and decades to come. Who would have thought that an eight year old could make such a positive difference in so many lives?