Making a Difference Feature on Mike Franz | By Karla Peterson
Originally Published in San Diego’s U-T | June 24, 2013

Like many addicts, Mike Franz remembers when he hit bottom. It was the summer of 1984, and he was a homeless junkie sleeping in the bushes next to the El Cajon courthouse. Those were the worst days of his life, and if he’s lucky, the McAlister Institute volunteer will remember them forever.

“One of the biggest dangers in recovery is forgetting where you came from and taking for granted the gift you’ve been given,” Franz said. “If you are freed from addiction, it is a gift. So when you are able to help pass that gift along, you feel like you are paying a little bit back for what you received.”

The road to recovery began in 1984. That was when Franz found his way out of the bushes and into a free detox center run by the McAlister Institute, a local nonprofit that provides treatment and intervention services for addicts and their families.

McAlister is responsible for the life Franz has now, a life that amazingly includes a home, a happy marriage and a career. It was even there for him when he relapsed briefly seven years ago with prescribed painkillers. In return, Franz has given his life to McAlister.

He worked his way up the organizational ladder to become the group’s deputy director. After retiring nine years ago, the deputy director stayed on as a volunteer. Franz is working for free these days, but he is sure he’s getting the better end of the deal.

“It does seem like my days are really busy,” the soft-spoken 64-year-old said during an interview in McAlister’s conference room, as staffers (and their dogs) stopped in to say hello. “I will always be indebted them. Anything I can do to help McAlister is a drop in the bucket compared to what I got from them.”

While he is no longer a paid employee, Franz is still a key member of the McAlister family. He serves on the board. He drives clients to 12-step meetings. He corresponds with prisoners who are struggling with addiction and runs self-help meetings in the South Bay Detention Facility. He takes time out for Chargers games and RV trips with his wife, Daryl. But when McAlister calls, Franz answers.

“Once Mike got sober and clean, he was very, very loyal and very dedicated to the program,” founder Jeanne McAlister said. “He has always helped us. If I need him for anything, I can call him and he will do it. He’s there for you.”

Loyalty and dedication were not always part of the Mike Franz character profile. Franz likes to say that substance abusers are the most self-centered people in the world, and he should know. A native of Orange County, he began dabbling in drugs at 15. By the time he moved here in the early 80s, he had been in and out of jail several times, all on drug-related charges.

He came to San Diego because it seemed like a good place to get a fresh start. Also, his sister lived here, and she was the only family member who hadn’t quite written him off. But old, nasty habits die hard, and he was using in no time. Franz traded heroin for methadone, and his sister bought him a casket. He was 34 years old.

It was an ugly chapter in Franz’s life, but thanks to McAlister, it wasn’t the last. Detox was a nightmare of flu-like aches and brain-frying insomnia, but when it was over, Franz was clean and on the path to being clear.

“There was a part of me that had hope. I felt like I was finally doing the right thing,” Franz said. “The program was very nonjudgmental and very accepting. The fact that they believed in me helped me believe in me.”

After completing detox in 1984, Franz volunteered in a seniors’ nutrition center run by Jeanne McAlister. He graduated to a job busing tables for $3.45 an hour, which led to gigs as a McAlister shift counselor and then a program manager.

Franz eventually got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix and began working in the group’s development department. He became the organization’s deputy director in 2000. Retirement was his idea, but when it came time to cruise off into the easy-living sunset, Franz discovered that he was not ready to pack it in. Some habits are just too special to break.

“It comes down to the principle that if I’m not using the gifts I’m given, I lose those gifts. And I don’t want that to happen,” Franz said. “It’s selfish, too. When you volunteer, you’re not giving, you’re getting. If I’m getting rewards, why would I stop doing it?”

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