The Covenant celebrates 20 years of service to area youth
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, January 2005) There’s an obvious continuity in the renovation and reuse of the old McGuffey School as the home of The Covenant. Students attended class at this site for over a hundred years, off and on, before hard use and decay left the school at 1515 West 29th St. an empty relic.  When The Covenant, an intensive day treatment and prevention program for chemically addicted youth, moved into the thoroughly restored school building in 2002, students returned to study math and English and how to keep drugs and alcohol from dominating their lives.

Continuity is a hallmark of The Covenant’s pioneering program. It was founded in 1984 to address the lack of treatment options for indigent youth coping with substance abuse. Prior to that time, according to Executive Director Richard Piazza, there were few options to incarceration for underinsured youth who ran into trouble with drugs and alcohol. Now celebrating its 20th year of service, The Covenant continues to offer care regardless of a client’s ability to pay.

A number of the people who were instrumental in its founding remain connected with The Covenant. Initially hired as the project planner, Piazza has served as executive director since the program opened in its first home at nearby Franklin Circle Disciples of Christ Church. Founding trustees Gail Cataldo and Dr. David Glynn remain active on the board. Clinical Director Dr. Robert Soffer and Senior Treatment Counselor Mike Rapposelli also mark 20 years with the program.
Glynn, a veterinarian with a practice on Cleveland’s west side, attributes much of the program’s steady growth and success to Piazza’s leadership. “Hiring him was the best thing we ever did,” Glynn says. He also notes that many of the organizations and churches, which provided support during the start-up of The Covenant, continue to stand behind the program.

The Covenant’s program is very intensive. It requires attendance five full days per week plus a half-day on Sunday, supplemented by regular family counseling sessions and participation in a separate 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. In order to avoid opportunities for relapsing into drug and alcohol use, “at first, we take up as much of their time as possible,” says Rapposelli.

To keep clients on track with their regular curriculum, teacher Pete Grootaers coordinates with staff at each client’s home school. Clients ages 12 to 19 from all over the county enter and complete the program at different times throughout the year, so Grootaers combines group lessons with individual course work at each student’s level.

An increasing number of The Covenant’s clients have received diagnoses of mental health issues in addition to their chemical addictions. The new space in the McGuffey School has provided an opportunity to expand the program’s capacity to treat these clients, as well as to increase outreach to the community through substance abuse and HIV/AIDS prevention.  In 2003, The Covenant served 115 clients in treatment, and over 10,000 through prevention services. The number of day treatment clients is expected to reach 150 for 2004, Piazza says.

With an institutional kitchen and lunch room, a small gym, and several open classrooms in the McGuffey School, Piazza sees an opportunity to take yet another step toward providing a continuity of service to teens experiencing or at risk for addiction.

“The most difficult part about returning to a drug- and alcohol-free life involves the return to their home school,” Piazza says. “Our kids sometimes carry a stigma as the ‘bad kid.’  Schools take them back reluctantly.”

In the future, Piazza hopes to open a state-funded community school, where students could choose to finish the academic year after the end of their primary treatment phase. In a more controlled setting and with greater access to counseling than is typically available to other public school students, Piazza believes students would be able to move on with their lives with even more confidence in their continued sobriety.


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