Lighting a beacon for health, hope and recovery


The Duluth Bethel is a 143-year-old organization that has been saving lives while saving our community's financial resources by providing effective and less-costly alternatives to addiction recovery and traditional jail or prison.

Though we have been around for more than a century and more than 16,000 vehicles pass our building on Mesaba Avenue every day, many people often ask me, "What do you do at the Bethel?" We help people overcome addiction to alcohol, drugs and other substances. We also provide halfway-house, work-release and other community corrections alternatives that not only work, but that also work better for community budgets than jail or prison.

How well do they work? Let's take a look at the numbers. Among our Port Men and Port Women substance-abuse programs, our Men's and Women's Work Release programs and our Female Offender program, we had 417 admissions in the past year at the Bethel. If you factor in the average length of stay in each program, we had 24,726 bed-days of program time available annually at the Bethel.

Divide that by 365 days, and you come up with more than 67 years of health, hope and recovery generated each year. That's more than 67 years every year that people are spending getting better and improving themselves instead of spending time in jail or prison. That's more than 67 years every year that people are rebuilding their lives so they can re-enter society as productive, usually employed and taxpaying, citizens.

Yes, there is a cost to providing help to the people we serve at the Bethel through our addiction recovery and community corrections programs. But our costs in all programs are much lower than the $41,364 average cost of housing an inmate in the state prison system in Minnesota, according to the most recent figures available.

It's also true that not every person who spends time at the Bethel would have wound up in a Minnesota prison, though some surely would have, and some actually come to us from the state prison system. Some would have likely gone to a federal prison, where costs are generally higher. And some, including our chemical dependency patients, would have continued to suffer through their addictions without receiving help, incurring costs to themselves and the community through increased health-care expenses, reduced productivity and missed opportunities from failing to live healthier lives.

The more than 67 years of healing instead of jail and prison time annually amount to a significant figure in dollars and cents, even if it is less than the $2.8 million that comes from multiplying them by the average annual cost of housing a prisoner in Minnesota.

So what are the actual dollar savings that the Bethel can claim for helping people through its programs? Half of that, or $1.4 million? Maybe something a bit more conservative, say approaching $1 million annually?

It's hard to say with certainty. But we know this: Because the Bethel exists, hundreds of people annually get the help they need to turn their lives around and once again become productive members of society, giving back to, instead of imposing costs on, our communities. These savings and increased productivity come at a time when our jails and prisons at all levels of government are already full.

It's a story of help and healing worthy of remembering and celebrating each year. So that is what we will do this New Year's Eve. As 2016 draws to a close, we will re-light the bright green beacon on top of the Bethel building at 23 Mesaba Ave.

For decades, the beacon was a symbol of hope and guidance for those who received help at the Bethel, as well as for ships and sailors who used the light as a navigational beacon directing them into the Duluth harbor. On New Year's Eve 2015, we re-lit the beacon after it had gone dark for more than 50 years. This year, we will symbolically re-light it to celebrate recovery and new beginnings for everyone in our community seeking a new start in 2017, and especially for those who have been struggling with addiction and criminal activity.

It means a lot to have a place of recovery and hope like the Bethel in our community. The benefits add up. That's even before you talk to the men and women who have benefitted from healthier and more fulfilling lives. It's also before you talk to their families, who benefit from having a healthy, productive loved one back in their midst.

At the Bethel on New Year's Eve, we'll celebrate that the New Year, like every new day, brings a hopeful opportunity for recovery.

Dennis Cummings is executive director of the Duluth Bethel, a nonprofit organization that provides chemical dependency recovery and community-based corrections programs to hundreds of men and women annually at 23 Mesaba Ave. The Bethel has served Duluth and the surrounding region since 1873.