By Buffy Pollock
for the Mail Tribune
Posted Apr 4, 2018 at 5:48 PM
Updated Apr 4, 2018 at 6:07 PM

MEDFORD — Huffing and puffing, clutching their mid-sections and whimpering about sore knees and aching backs, four sweaty men in purple T-shirts caused a scene along Oakdale Avenue Wednesday, sounding more like a medical emergency than “athletes in training.”

The self-declared “racing sloths” mocked their own running abilities, but their efforts were symbolic of their road to addiction recovery — and an assessment of how they expect they’ll do in the annual Pear Blossom 5K.

They might come in dead last, they admit, but they aim to finish.

Three dozen clients, staff and coaches from Foundations for Recovery plan to run in the April 14 race.

The team’s motto, “Race for Recovery — We’ll Get There When We Get There,” says it all, said executive director and lead sloth Doug Gould.

Overcoming odds and relying on peer-to-peer support have been cornerstones of the model used to help people at Foundations for Recovery since it opened in a cramped 400-square-foot office space in the Woolworth Building in 2011.

The foundation will host a grand opening from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday for its shiny, new, 3,300-square-foot digs at Sixth and Ivy streets in downtown Medford.

At one time, Gould would have been considered an unlikely candidate to be boss of the nonprofit. He had a background in family counseling and behavioral health, but Gould faced a long list of hard times that found him relapsing into substance abuse in 1997.

“I was clean and sober for 21 years, then a divorce in 1997 and the death of my parents, all within two weeks in July 1997, and I hit a point where I thought, ‘I could have one drink.’ And I was off and running for 14 years before I ended up in the ER, New Year’s 2010, with blood pressure of 280 over 200. That was my wake up.”

Foundations for Recovery started in 2011, with founder Steve Hale dying shortly after its inception. Gould had ventured into coaching, providing peer support, when he was offered the leadership role. “The board came to me and said, ‘We have good news and bad news. Good news is we want you to be director. Bad news is we can’t pay you,’ ” Gould remembers. Seven years in, he believes just as strongly in peer mentoring. He also believes his team will most likely survive the upcoming race.

“The way we’ve been handling it for years isn’t the best way to handle it. It’s been proven that the best kind of support to offer someone fighting addiction is for them to have someone who they feel understands what it feels like to put a needle in their arm, a pipe in their mouth or a bottle to their lips,” Gould said.

“Unless you can talk to somebody who has actually been there, it isn’t the same.” Dan Horton is living proof that the peer-to-peer approach, now recognized by insurance providers, actually works, Gould said. Horton walked into Foundations for Recovery in 2013 and alternated between clean time and “stumbling away.” Horton said support of family and friends, but especially coaches who had gone through similar experiences, was crucial in his recovery, which tallied 215 days as of Wednesday.

“You learn that there are really all these stages of change, like with anything. You can relapse or make a mistake, but you can still jump back in and keep trying. Just because you relapse doesn’t mean you don’t get another chance. I spent quite a bit of time in jail, and I’m currently in Recovery Opportunity Court with three years’ prison hanging over my head. I decided I don’t want that for my children, and it’s not something I want for myself,” Horton said.

“I feel so blessed for all that happened to me. Doug showed up in court while I was in jail. My parents showed up. I would have been terminated a long time ago without all the people who have supported me, and knowing that I had people who really cared.” Horton said working with Foundations for Recovery has taught him that relapse and failing “weren’t the same thing.” “Failure isn’t really something, in my opinion, that we have to allow to exist. The only way that you can fail is if you stop working for something,” Horton said. Gould said he hoped the work being done at his foundation would change the stigma associated with addiction.

“It grieves my heart when I hear words like ‘tweaker’ or ‘junkie’ or ‘lowlife.’ Or, ‘They’ll never change.’ Change is absolutely possible,” Gould said. “The big reason behind our sloth motto, ‘We’ll get there when we get there,’ is to show people that, we may not get there first, but eventually we will get there. The idea behind long-term recovery is that you face and overcome setbacks. You are going to have failures, but we can teach through them.”

Gould added, “Thomas Edison learned 900 different ways how to not make the light bulb before he figured it out. And that’s how we do it at Foundations. … We will get there when we get there.”

To make a pledge for the sloth “racing” team, or for more info about Foundations for Recovery, see https://ffrhope.com/fundraisers/ffr-sloth-challenge/ or www.facebook.com/Foundations-for-Recovery-254294184582402/