20 years later and still worth the risk

Cornerstone of Recovery founder put all on the line to help addicts

Dan Caldwell, CEO of Cornerstone of Recovery, works in his office in advance of the annual reunion planned for Sept. 18 - 20.

Photo by Tessa Bright Wildsmith

Dan Caldwell, CEO of Cornerstone of Recovery, works in his office in advance of the annual reunion planned for Sept. 18 - 20.

The annual Cornerstone of Recovery Alumni Reunion is always a special event -- but the one scheduled for Friday, Sept. 18, through Sunday, Sept. 20, will be even more so, said alumni association president Genny Blevins.

The weekend’s activities center around the 20th anniversary of the institution’s founding, and alumni planners are putting in extra hours to commemorate the milestone, Blevins said. “We want to make an emphasis on the fact that there are 20 years of miracles,” Blevins said. “If we think about the number of lives Cornerstone has touched in a 20-year period, it’s a miracle,” she said. “Because of that, a lot of extra work has gone into planning this year’s reunion.”

Those who have attended the Reunion in years past will return home to familiar events -- the Friday night Red Ball meeting, the Saturday picnic, the Sunday golf and bowling tournaments -- but the anniversary makes the renewal of personal friendships and spiritual ties even more special.

Blevins said that in addition to the activities that have been hallmarks of the annual event, new activities will be featured. A silent auction will once again take place on Friday, Sept. 18, and area businesses who donate items for it are recognizing Cornerstone’s 20th birthday.

Friday activities will end with the traditional ice cream social, and Saturday’s activities kick off early with morning spiritual meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings will take place before lunch, followed by chip and keytag presentations for those commemorating multiple years of sobriety/recovery, and a full afternoon of entertainment will kick off during the picnic lunch.

The majority of Alumni Reunion activities will take place at the Cornerstone campus located at 4726 Alcoa Highway in Blount County. The Reunion is the work of The Cornerstone Alumni Association, which was founded in 2007 and participated in planning many Cornerstone events.

How it all started

The true founding of Cornerstone of Recovery, which opened on Sept. 22, 1989, actually began 10 years earlier as the man who would be the program’s “father” prepared to die.

Retired Alcoa, Inc., executive Bill Hood returned to Tennessee in 1979, brought by his wife to Tennessee to die from his late-stage alcoholism.

“The history of Cornerstone began 10 years prior (to 1989) when Bill Hood came to Tennessee as a late stage alcoholic whose wife brought him to Tennessee to die from alcoholism because he had failed to get sober from prior treatments,” Cornerstone CEO Dan Caldwell said.

Hood’s parents lived in Blount County. When he arrived here, his wife, Jean, checked him into Peninsula Hospital. “He entered treatment in Peninsula, had a spiritual awaking and he got very, very excited. He was a metallurgical engineer. He said he had lived his life as a phony, but something happened in treatment,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said Hood credited Bob McCall with Peninsula for directing his treatment and helping him become a whole human being again. “Bill had this awakening, and he was like a kid with a new toy when he discovered the recovery process. He took to it and really got excited. Sometime after 35 or 40 days, Peninsula said, ‘You’re ready,’ and he said, ‘I can’t go, I’ve been drinking too long. I’m not ready.’”

Caldwell said that began Hood’s journey in working with addicts and alcoholics. “He started volunteering at treatment. He was so empathetic of those who had been drinking for so long and were afraid of going back,” Caldwell said.

One of the tenants of the recovery program is giving back to others. “The real cure for this disease is making a life change and having a spiritual relationship and helping other people,” Caldwell said. “The disease makes one self-absorbed and self-centered and makes it difficult to recover.”

Hood helped start “after care” with patients who had completed the clinical recovery program at Peninsula. He eventually started filling his car with Styrofoam boxes of food and traveled as far away as Corbin, Ky., to visit people who had gone through recovery. Soon he took a part-time position at Peninsula Hospital. It wasn’t long before he moved up to a full-time job as a counselor and after that he became a program coordinator.

“Bill had a passion for recovery,” Caldwell said.

In the late 1980s, Hood helped start a pilot residential program the flourished but in May of 1989, Peninsula stopped the residential program and brought it back to the hospital. It was at this point Hood left Peninsula, Caldwell said.

The result was the birth of Cornerstone. On the heels of Hood’s planning, Caldwell’s job at Peninsula was changed, and he chose to follow Hood and help get Cornerstone started.

“I was vice president, and he was president. My job was to market it, get it started, doing things for quality and compliance and getting licenses and accreditation. My most important job was to find investors,” Caldwell said, “and I couldn’t find any. We didn’t get many. We needed 21 investors to open, and we got 13. They were family and friends of Bill and people who could afford the risk.”

Hood put his money where his heart was and mortgaged his house to get the money to start Cornerstone of Recovery.

“That’s how we got started. We had a tremendous financial struggle to start, amazing difficulties. People did not want to pay, it was hard finding customers. We had excellent treatment staff and great clinicians coming in,” he said. “We were keeping people one to four months in treatment and that worked.”

The center was in serious trouble financially and Hood got the staff together early in late 1991. “We were in dire straits and the only way to survive was to cut costs,” he said.

Some took 10 percent pay cuts and Hood took a 100 percent pay cut. “About that time, we started getting a few more people,” he said.

In the coming years, they began to grow the client base a little at a time. “In late 1992 or early 1993 it looked like we were going to make it,” he said. “We started getting more money coming in than going out. Our mission was being successful, more and more companies and individuals were seeking us out for treatment. We were being effective, and people were getting sober.”

Then in October of 1993, Hood collapsed at home and died three days later.

“It was a tremendous loss,” said Caldwell. “He defined the company. He was just passionate. We had the estate corporate lawyer come in to look at the books and what we discovered was that Bill Hood had converted $119,000 of his retirement fund over 10 months to meet payroll,” Caldwell said. “It was quite a story. He risked his home and retirement funds for this company.”

Caldwell said Cornerstone kept going after Hood died. “From ‘92 to ‘97, we grew 10 percent a year,” he said.

The original investors were repaid, as was Hood’s estate, including the mortgage line of credit and the money he took from his retirement. “We made his widow whole,” Caldwell said. “It was like she got it back with interest.”

With success came more need, and Caldwell approached the board about building a new facility. The board opted to save up to secure a loan for construction. In 2002, the current facility opened on Topside Road. “Our business jumped again 25 percent that first year, and we grew every year. We’ve been treating somewhere around 1,200 patients a year since then, and that’s pretty much the history of Cornerstone,” he said. “We continue to grow and develop. Our mission is to present the best opportunity available for recovery and always get better and produce positive outcome.”

Caldwell said the second part of Cornerstone’s mission is to educate people as to the difficulties in dealing with the disease of addiction.

“It’s the No 1 health problem in America. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes - add them all together and they are less than the cost of alcoholism and drug abuse dependency,” he said.

Caldwell said the recovery lifestyle is something Cornerstone teaches. “There are so many promising things people experience. The quality of life can be greater than before you even developed the disease. It teaches people to live life on life’s terms, have a spiritual existence and connect to others,” he said.

Recovering addicts and alcoholics come out of treatment as the most honest individuals. “There’s hope that things get better,” he said. “Employers get better employees, wives get better husbands.”

For a schedule of Alumni Reunion events, see www.cornerstoneofrecovery.com.

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