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He came, he DAREd, he delivered

/ 05:13 AM October 16, 2016

When heroin chemist Lim Seng was executed at dawn of Jan. 15, 1973, at Fort Bonifacio, among the witnesses was a tall American priest who had just opened a drug addiction treatment center in Trece Martires, Cavite.

Fr. Bob Garon, a La Sallete missionary from Manchester, New Hampshire, had joined the crowd some 12 to 15 meters from Lim, who was blindfolded and tied to a post. He also saw the soldiers form a line.

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“I heard someone say very quickly, Ready, aim, fire! Boom! Blood spurted (from Lim’s chest) like a fountain. Another soldier moved closer and fired another shot at Lim’s head. Other soldiers untied the body from the post and loaded it onto an ambulance,” Garon recalled.

Although Lim would be the only drug personality executed during martial law, the impact of the execution was immediately felt, Garon said. “Heroin disappeared, and there were less heroin users,” he added.

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But the impact was short lived and drugs would make a comeback within months. Junkies with telltale needle marks on their forearms were soon lining up for admission at the Drug Abuse Research Foundation (DARE) center in Cavite that Garon had founded in 1971.

But DARE became so popular that film director Lino Brocka used it as setting for a movie on drug addiction in the trilogy “Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa” in 1974.

The film had the late actor Jay Ilagan in the role of a drug dependent. Among the bit players in the movie was a DARE resident, Bembol Roco, a recovering heroin user who would later become a celebrated, award-winning actor.

Therapeutic Community

In one awards ceremony, Roco would acknowledge Lino Brocka, who “discovered” him at DARE,  and Fr. Bob Garon,  for the turnaround in his life.

For founding DARE which introduced the Therapeutic Community (TC) program from the Daytop Village in New York, Garon would be acknowledged as the “Father of TC in the Philippines and Asia.”

Now a healthy and still energetic 80-year old, Garon considers all those years as part of  God’s plan. “There are two plans in life: your plan, and God’s plan. And you know what? Your plan doesn’t matter,”  the former priest said during our visit to the 5-hectare ranch in San Jose, Batangas that also hosts the Nazareth Formation House, an addiction treatment center that Garon and wife Emmy co-founded in 1999.

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Shaded by green foliage, the Nazareth complex consists of separate dormitories for men and women, several dining halls, spacious buildings for seminars and classrooms, a chapel, a grotto, a swimming pool and a huge library where Garon has a consultation den.

The Nazareth would be a continuation of the seminal DARE center that would set the standard of rehab programs in the country.

It was at DARE that Garon met Emmy, then a 19-year old staff who would become the first Filipino woman to manage a drug facility. The couple married in 1978 after he got his dispensation from the Vatican. An educator and addiction specialist, Emmy is the executive director at the Nazareth Formation House.

The Garons have two daughters: Vanessa Garon-Vandervoort, an educator who heads the family-owned Golden Values School, and Alexandria Garon-Manosa, a psychologist who also works at the formation house.

Founding a drug rehab center was not on Garon’s playbook when he arrived in Manila as a La Sallete missionary in 1965.  After six months in a mission at Isabela, he went back to Manila as chaplain at the FEATI University where he organized weekend retreats for students patterned after the cursillo movement that was then popular among Catholics.

Bible readings

Garon’s talks before students and parents caught the attention of media owners, who invited him to write a column and host TV and radio programs.

“I became a tri-media (personality) and people came to me to help or ask for help,” he recalled. One of them asked Garon to sit on the board of a drug rehab center set up to stem the rampant use of drugs, especially heroin.

When the project fell through, Garon pursued it on his own. He rented a house in Paco and solicited funds for a foundation that would manage the center. Among the early donors were the Lopez, Roces and Prieto families.

A concerned citizen also offered to help Garon find a bigger place in Cavite, provided his addicted son was admitted at the DARE.

“But I didn’t have a method,” Garon recalled. “At the beginning, it was all Bible (readings) and singing of Christian songs,” he said. “I lost 200 residents who left as addicted as they were when they came in.”

A priest who visited Garon urged him to study the drug programs in the US. With a ticket from USAID, he flew to the US where he visited 35 drug proggrams in New York and Chicago. The TC method of the Daytop Village in New York was the most appropriate for the Philippine setting, he realized.

Mario Albano, a DARE “graduate” was forthwith sent to train on TC at Daytop, which was founded by Msgr. William O’Brien. Albano came home to echo the training to other DARE staffers and volunteers. The method would become the hallmark of DARE in the 1970s.

In brief, the TC method is a self-help program that aims to wean the drug dependent from the habit by encouraging a personal change with help from peers, the staff at DARE, and the family with whom he intends to live after the program.

Help came to DARE in many forms. Then First Lady Imelda Marcos gave DARE the basement wing of the East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City, and a house in Baguio City.  Cristina Ponce Enrile, wife of then Defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile, gave DARE a general’s house at Fort Bonifacio for use by female drug addicts.  Even the Philippine Air Force and the Philippine Navy each donated a place for DARE’s recovering drug dependents.

One day, Garon said he met  Judge Onofre Villaluz, who had the reputation of giving the death sentence to many convicts, such that the media would dub him “the hanging judge.”

“He asked me, do you want some addicts? I can send you some addicts,” Garon recalled.

Bilibid or DARE?

The next day, 20 men in handcuffs escorted by armed guards arrived at the DARE facility in Quezon City. They were convicted drug offenders from the Pasig Provicial Jail. Villaluz would even include DARE as an option for drug offenders. “They were made to choose, Bilibid or DARE? Of course, many chose DARE,” Garon said, laughing.

“I accepted everybody and his uncle,” he said. Residents were charged P160 a month for their stay, if they could afford it.

It was cheaper than the fees charged by psychiatrists who had started questioning Garon’s qualifications. “I went to war with the psychiatrists,” he said. “(But) I am a counsellor, not a psychiatrist.”

In 1974, Garon invited Dr. Theodore Abas to be DARE’s psychiatrist consultant. Three years later, in 1977, Garon quit DARE and was replaced by Rev. Fr. George Loiselle. In the 1990s, Dr. Abas would become DARE president. He was replaced by Dr. Dominga “Minguita” Padilla in the early 2000s.

Away from DARE, Garon continued his management consultancies. He and Emmy also opened the Golden Values School in Makati.

But by the 1990s, DARE had lost its sheen as a premier rehab center for drug dependents. Garon said he wanted to return to DARE to reinvigorate the center but could not agree with its rehab methods anymore. He went on to open Nazareth, a green paradise away from the drug-mad metropolis.

“Drug addicts love their addiction. What can make them stop?” Garon asked. This is the same question that baffled him then, and continues to baffle him today.

(Dr. Padilla said DARE had closed all its rehab centers years ago. The foundation also sold the Cavite property to the Daughters of Charity, she added.  But DARE still has its support groups and a counsellor who developed an out-patient community-based rehab program. A pilot of this program can be found in Legaspi City, as a project of the city’s diocese, Padilla said.)

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TAGS: Cavite, DARE center, Drug Abuse Research Foundation, Fort Bonifacio, Fr. Bob Garon, La Sallete missionary, Lim Seng, Manchester, New Hampshire, Trece Martires
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