York vets reach for 'Higher Standard' at suburban recovery house

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Four years ago, Brian Keys lived what many would consider an enviable life.

He was married with three children, living in a nice house in the suburbs and making a six-figure income. But an increasingly toxic relationship with alcohol began to eat away at Keys' life, eventually landing him in York County Prison with six DUI convictions.

"It just unraveled," he said. 

Keys, 49, a Navy veteran, is the first resident of The Higher Standard Project, a joint housing initiative between York County Veterans Affairs, York County Veterans Treatment Court and Bell Socialization Services in York City.

He celebrated two years of sobriety on Oct. 31, 2018, one year to the day since his release from jail after serving one year. He said he's tried to figure out what triggered his downward spiral, but he doesn't know what the catalyst was.

"It literally is just a slow bend," he said of his addiction. "There’s no hairpin to it, whatsoever."

Brian Keys, 49, is the first veteran to move into the new Higher Standard Project home.  November 18, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Terry Gendron, director of Veterans Affairs, said the goal of The Higher Standard Project is to provide a privately funded living space exclusively for veterans whose struggles with substance abuse, addiction or trauma have landed them in Veterans Treatment Court.

According to the county website, Veterans Treatment Court is a hybrid of drug and alcohol treatment courts that is also attuned to certain issues that particularly affect veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma.

Veterans with recent participation in a long-term treatment program at a VA hospital are also eligible for The Higher Standard Project.

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Gendron said that for veterans in treatment court for drug and alcohol addiction recovery, there aren't many options for sober housing.

A number of participants rent rooms in "sober houses" in downtown York City, where drugs and alcohol are not allowed. But aside from that rule, there isn't much in the way of a support system.

"This is a very tenuous, vulnerable point in these men’s lives, and we’re here to provide them with a living environment that is conducive to success," Gendron said. "Not alone in a room, but together as veterans."

The house is situated in a quiet, suburban York County neighborhood, and at full capacity it will house up to six qualified male veterans.

Gendron requested that the house location remain confidential in order to protect the privacy of the neighbors and the veterans themselves.

Veteran residents will pay a rent amount that's comparable to what they would pay in a regular sober house in the city, Gendron said.

The Higher Standard Project is a veteran's housing program, privately funded, that is equipped to house up to six male veterans who qualify based on participation in veterans wellness court or recent participation in long-term treatment at a VA hospital for substance abuse/trauma recovery/etc.  
Monday, November 18, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Highest standard: The term "Higher Standard" was chosen for a reason, as Gendron said every aspect of the project aims to meet and exceed the highest possible standards.

That includes installing new carpet and appliances (donated by area businesses) and adding a fresh coat of paint to the walls. But it also refers to the conduct and actions of veterans who will live at the house.

Keys said there has been some pushback from neighbors about the project settling in their development, and he said he completely understands their concerns.

"If I was living in this neighborhood and didn’t know what I know now about the program and about the people that are going to be moving in here, I wouldn’t want six guys that are struggling with drugs and alcohol and whatever kind of legal problems living in my neighborhood," Keys said. "I get it."

But he also said there are a number of strict requirements that must be met by anyone who moves into the home.

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Veterans Treatment Court will not be a clearinghouse where any and all participants move into the house.

Instead, members of The Higher Standard Project advisory board will look at potential candidates to make sure those who are moving into the house are ready and willing to make the necessary changes to be successful, and that they will respect the rules and requirements of both The Higher Standard Project and of their veterans court agreement.

The advisory board includes representatives from York County Veterans Affairs, veterans court mentors and alumni, the office of adult probation, federal Veterans Affairs judicial outreach, Bell Socialization Services, Northeast Regional Police and neighbors who live near the house.

Keys also sits on the board as a representative of the residents.

Gendron said it's important that the residents of the house are good neighbors, and that they respect the environment they'll be living in. He hopes that eventually, the project will be fully embraced by all of the neighbors.

"If that doesn’t happen, we need to re-look (at) the definition of success," Gendron said. "These men have to be very good neighbors." 

Director of York County Veterans Affairs Terry Gendron speaks during a ceremony following the placement of 2,393 American flags as the Afghanistan War Flag Memorial is reinstalled at Prospect Hill Cemetery in York City, Saturday, April 22, 2017. An additional 303 state flags were also placed commemorating fallen Pennsylvanians who lost their lives in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Accreditation: Gendron said the advisory board for The Higher Standard Project has begun the process of pursuing national accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, which is "the highest standard" for recovery and rehabilitation homes.

Aaron Saylor, a veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq, is a Bell Socialization Services employee who works full time as the resource coordinator for The Higher Standard Project. 

Saylor said he was working in another department at Bell when he learned about The Higher Standard Project and that he jumped at the chance to be a part of it.

"It’s so rare that you get an opportunity to be on the ground floor of something that you care about, that’s just being built," he said.

Saylor doesn't live at the house, but he has a permanent office there. His work is dedicated exclusively to The Higher Standard Project, making sure the veterans who live at the house have everything they need and meeting with them to go over their personal goals and help keep them on track.

"This has personal meaning for me," Saylor said. "I don’t have a history of addiction or anything, but it’s something that hits home, and (that) I wanted to be a part of."

Future outlook: Gendron said the advisory board plans to provide a comparable living situation for female veterans as the project develops and grows, and there is already a plan to apply for a grant to help fund that expansion.

For the time being, though, the board is focused on attaining that national accreditation, which will open even more doors for the project to grow and serve more people.

"We believe that these are the men that will be community servants for the rest of their lives after they go through this transition period," Gendron said, "and that our investment will be returned a thousand-fold."