FAIRMONT — When Chuck VanKirk looks at his clients at Friendship Fairmont, he sees himself.

“I just have a big heart, I just want to help people, I want people to realize there’s so much more to life than what they’re going through now,” VanKirk said.

He was hired earlier this fall as program director for the Friendship Fairmont, a peer recovery center that helps people who have substance use disorder.

He’s worked to make its new location somewhat welcoming.

Friendship Fairmont officially opened its new location at 10 Locust Ave. where it offers guests a bite to eat, an ear to listen and a hot cup of coffee to those in need.

Earlier in the year, the friendship room was asked to vacate their original location on the fourth floor of the Courthouse Annex on Adams Street after several incidents between the clients of the room and the individuals taking part in programs at the Day Report Center on the first floor of the same building.

Now, officially opened in their new location just on the border of downtown, the administrators of Friendship Fairmont say it was just as well they moved. The staff said they are seeing many new faces, folks who were once intimidated to go their original location due to fear of law enforcement who would come in and out of the annex.

Maggie Bracken, a peer recovery coach at the friendship room, reports a noticeable increase in traffic in the new building. The room had a soft opening in October and for the six days it was opened, the staff saw 74 clients.

“We have, usually, about 20 to 30 people a day,” Bracken said.

Those clients come inside for a wide range a reasons — some for addiction help, resources, a drink or just to get out of the cold.

Helping the physical issues of addiction or homelessness is one half of what Friendship Fairmont does, while the real assistance comes with the mental health help the facility offers. Bracken helps with recovery, but also runs an art group for the clients so they can have a creative outlet.

“It’s so important to focus on the mental side of things. With the art group [clients] love to just get in there and express themselves,” Bracken said. “A lot of clients say it really helps them mentally and gets them in a good headspace.”

Bracken and her co-workers are excited to be in the new location. The much larger and “homey” building wasn’t much to look at at the start of summer.

Laura Jones is executive director of the friendship room’s governing body, Milan Puskar Health Right. She recalls all the work that the building needed when it was first shown to the organization.

“The main issues were panting and cleaning, [this staff] did an amazing job cleaning and getting together furniture from... Blessings in the Basement,” Jones said. “Friendship rooms are good at using resources where we can find them.”

At the end of July, a church youth group from North Carolina traveled to Fairmont to help repaint the interior of the building. Together the pieces make an atmosphere that Jones describes as laidback and welcoming.

“There aren’t any barriers to becoming a participant here, you just basically walk in,” Jones said. “Anyone is welcome here, there’s no criteria, no income guidelines.”

Those who come into Friendship Fairmont will be welcomed by the friendly face of someone who knows firsthand the struggles that many of the room’s clients face every day.

VanKirk is energetic, driven and passionate about helping those who are struggling because he said that’s where he was not too long ago.

“I’m actually in recovery myself. I made some bad choices in my life but I’ve turned my life around,” VanKirk said. “Now that I’m doing something positive with myself, I’m trying to bring other people up with me.”

Many in social work lack lived experience with the issues they treat, which often times can put a barrier between them and the people they try to help. VanKirk said that his personal experiences not only help him relate to his clients, but help them to trust his advice.

“Nobody wants to be diagnosed out of a book. If you’ve never been there then nobody wants to here what you have to say because you don’t know their story,” VanKirk said. “But with me, I’ve been there, I understand, I’ve done a lot of the things they’ve done, so we click.”

Friendship Fairmont is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday’s from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., though they hope to be open 5 days a week eventually.

If anyone in the community is interested in helping by donations or volunteering, stop by their new location or call the front desk at 304-368-1341.

Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at dkirk@timeswv.com.

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