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Jim Balmer: Lifelong Conversion


Dawn Farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan is a place where addicts and alcoholics recover the lives they lost to drugs and alcohol. Recover is an innocent-sounding verb for the grueling, gut-wrenching metamorphosis that takes place in the human body and spirit as it separates from the chemical demons that possess it. But close to 75 percent of the people who undergo treatment at Dawn Farm really do reclaim their lost lives and achieve long-term recovery.

Jim Balmer with his wife and four children

"People are surprised because treatment centers often have these euphemistic names. You know Happy Meadows, Pleasant Acres but you see them and it's just a building," explained Jim Balmer, president of Dawn Farm. "But here, this is a real 74-acre working farm. We raise hogs and chickens and turkeys. At all of our sites we believe in the value of meaningful work, and our residents help work the farm."

"We like to say that we've always combined the best attributes of farmers and drug addicts, in that farmers never throw anything away, and we don't, either," Jim said. "And drug addicts are always sort of hustling, and it would be fair to say that we are, too."

The staff at Dawn Farm hustles to provide the best possible care while aggressively managing their operating budget. Since Dawn Farm opened in 1973, it has stood by its policy never to turn people away for lack of funds, and they have stayed in business while many addiction treatment centers around them have closed. Dawn Farm has even added several new programs that address some of the most underserved populations in the community. Donors no doubt respond to Jim's infectious passion for the people Dawn Farm treats, many of whom are indigent and have been labeled "high risk" by other treatment providers.

"We open more sites and fill them right away. The demand for services continues to rise," Jim explained. "We are the only residential treatment facility in our county and the only detox facility in five counties."

Jim started working at Dawn Farm as a counselor in 1983 and was promoted to president of the organization in 1985. He has that rare kind of enthusiastic love of life that most of us experience once a year on Easter morning.

"I happen to be a recovering addict," Jim told me. "I was involved in the old crisis center movement of the late 60s and I was an active addict while I was doing that work. In 1969, the people who were qualified to talk on hot lines were the people who had done the drugs. I am not proud of that, but that's how it was. I was injecting various drugs. I was nuts, and eventually I was too nuts even for them and they said, 'Please don't come around here anymore.'

"In 1971, I got into recovery, thankfully. I think if I hadn't, I wouldn't have lived this long," stated Jim. "Now I wake up every morning and say to God, 'What can I do to be of service today?'"

Jim has earned a reputation as an outspoken advocate for the fair treatment of addicts and alcoholics.

"Addiction is a brain disease. The science is really there it isn't even in dispute anymore," according to Jim. "So it's very disturbing to see the inequity that exists between the treatment of addiction and the treatment of any other chronic disease. You could be a diabetic and be stupid with your diet and not take care of yourself and, as a result, have all sorts of horrific symptoms of diabetes. And no one would ever deny you care. But they do it routinely to addicts. It is a profoundly disenfranchised group of people."

"I am not sure why the issue of free will becomes more glaring when you are talking about an addict," Jim added. "Maybe because so many people have been hurt by addicts."

And when it comes to the treatment of addicts and alcoholics, Jim strongly favors long-term residential care, followed up with lifelong participation in a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous, as the best way to beat an addiction for good.

"The new de facto poor, the new people we see who have a great deal of difficulty finding successful treatment, are people who have insurance," Jim told me. "They get an insurance policy and they assume that it will hold them in good stead, and in fact they have very, very limited options. Their insurance company says, 'We will authorize you to go to treatment for five days.' That is just a joke. Few options for long-term care remain.

"People ask, 'How can you tell if a form of treatment is good?' I always say the same thing. Find out whether or not they give it to doctors. If they don't give it to doctors, don't take it. Do you think they give methadone to doctors? No, not ever. The treatment of choice for doctors is long-term residential care. And who do you think has the highest recovery rate? Doctors."

Dawn Farm offers two residential programs the six-month farm program, in a rural setting, and the one-to-three-month Huron Street program in urban Ann Arbor. Before completing treatment, some residents secure employment and housing and join Dawn Farm's six-month aftercare program. Others can opt to live in their Chapin Street Project transitional housing program for anywhere from six months to two years. Dawn Farm services also include a program for chemically dependent pregnant women and mothers with children, a five-day detox program, jail outreach, and street outreach, which literally puts staff members on the streets to meet addicts and alcoholics in the community and encourage them to get the help they need.

All Dawn Farm programs are fully licensed and accredited. Jim said that he hopes their next project will be to start a treatment program for adolescents under age 17, one of the fastest-growing populations with addictions to alcohol and drugs.

Jim's spirituality is entwined with his own recovery from addiction.

"When I became sober, I was an existential atheist. I was actually kind of a punk atheist who liked to take on Christians. Again, it is one of those things I am not proud of. Even though I grew up in a decent family, I ended up on a fairly wild side of things. Through going to 12-step groups, I came to believe in God, but had a very rudimentary understanding of who God was," he said.

"After I had been sober a few years, somebody invited me to a Catholic student chapel on the campus of Eastern Michigan University," Jim recalled. "I not only became a Catholic as a convert but became a Christian evangelized by the Catholic Church. I really credit the priests there with my conversion. These two priests were not judging me and were really dear men. They encouraged me to read the Gospel and then I was hooked."

Jim and his wife have been married for 22 years, and they are the parents of four children. He is very proud of their life as a Christian family, and he is very humble about his own service to God and the Church.

"Years ago I got an award for my work, and I was out on a run with my second oldest daughter," Jim recalled. "She asked me if I was excited about going to this award dinner. I told her I didn't really feel like I was worthy of an award. She said, 'Sure you are, Dad. Look at what you do for people.'

"I said, 'Imagine if you were gravely ill, and you were blind and crippled and in a wheelchair. Someone tells you they will take you to Church. The first time you were brought into this Church, you experienced some kind of healing. And the same thing the next time and the next time, and then suddenly, you could see again. Eventually, your limbs got better and one day, you were out of the wheelchair. You weren't in pain any more and you had this radical transformation from being completely crippled to being completely whole. And you would look around and see this happening to other people, too.

"'Then at Church one day, someone taps you on the shoulder and asks you if you would be willing to be an usher. You say, 'Absolutely!' And then they want to give you an award for being an usher. You would be sheepish about receiving such an award, because how could you have done anything differently?'

"That has been my experience. I get to see the power of God every day. Don't get me wrong, I see terrible tragedies. We bury way too many people," Jim said. "But I also see every day people with phenomenal recoveries who are real testimonies to the power of God. I feel like I have been given the opportunity to be an usher."

For more information on Dawn Farm, write Jim Balmer at 502 West Huron Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103; or call (734) 485-8725; or email him at



Molly MulQueen. "Jim Balmer: Lifelong Conversion." Lay Witness (July/August 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

The Author

Molly Mulqueen writes for Lay Witness.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness
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