Knoxville rehab center fights for survival amid state budget cuts

9:12 PM, Oct 9, 2012   |    comments
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If you have unaware of the E.M. Jellinek Center in Knoxville, it is not because you are unobservant.  The long-time residential rehab center for men fighting alcoholism and substance abuse has intentionally kept a low profile for the last 40 years.  However, its enormous impact has reached counties throughout East Tennessee.

Drive down Hinton Street in North Knoxville and you will find it difficult to determine which one of the houses is the Jellinek Center. That's because around 10 of the houses on the block are the Jellinek Center.

"We don't have any signs out front to advertise that this is a rehab center," said Mike Kolinsky, director of operations. "That's because this is their home. You don't see a sign out in the front yard of your house, do you? My dad always called this the best kept secret in Knoxville."

Mike's dad is the late Frank Kolinsky, an offensive tackle for the University of Tennessee football teams in the mid-1950s. When Kolinsky died a couple of years ago, newspaper headlines conveyed his gridiron glory. The true legacy of Frank Kolinsky's life is how he tackled addiction in Tennessee.

"When Frank was drinking, you better look out. The police were not even going to come help you," said former wife Sandy Kolinsky. "In 1979, I took Frank to a rehab center in Charlotte and he took his last drink. When we came back to Knoxville he knew he wanted to help other people and he was good at it."

Frank started working for the E.M. Jellinek Center in 1980 and grew it from two houses that served a dozen men to its current status of ten houses helping more than 50 men. A sign hangs in the cafeteria that reads, "The home that Frank built."

The Kolinsky family always placed heavy emphasis on the word "home" in rehabilitation. Jellinek looks and feels like a group of normal homes. It also welcomed men into the home with no money up front and minimal rent during recovery.

With budget cuts now threatening Jellinek's survival, these quiet good Samaritans are speaking up about its value.

"Come by Hinton Street and see all the houses and they just don't relate it to a rehab program," said Johnny Lewis, executive director. "We take men fighting addiction and they do not have to pay any money up front. We get them clean and get them to be men again. They work and pay bills. They come home and learn how to live in a real home. We have never tried to go around bragging about what we do. We always had state funding and were taken care of. We never had to attract attention to the work we do or ask for donations. Now that's all changing."

The state budget cuts that have hit other treatment centers have also pinched Jellinek. A reduction in funds this fiscal year is a harbinger of future cuts.

"From what we hear there are more [coming]. I hate it, but now we're in a situation where we are going to have to bring attention to ourselves and ask for help. We've been doing this great work for 40 years and nobody knows about us due to our own humility. We're also going to have to start charging more for rent and services. The men coming here for help sometimes do not have anything but the shirt on their back," said Lewis.

One of the men who arrived at Jellinek with nothing is Steve Wildsmith, a long-time journalist for the Maryville Daily Times.

"When I came here I had absolutely nothing. They took me in and gave me a home when my own parents had made the difficult decision not to let me in my own home. I was an addict who had lied and stolen from my own parents, from my girlfriend, and wrecked everything in my life," said Wildsmith. "I got better here and was able to keep working with a place to come home to. I remember at one point realizing I was getting better and not hating the person I saw in the mirror. This place teaches you how to be a man and behave like a man. You take care of your home, you pay your bills, you go to work, and you are responsible. Now I have my own family and my parents write a check every year to Jellinek on the anniversary of me being sober."

Wildsmith said addiction affects everyone in the community and Jellinek has quietly done an invaluable service without acclaim.

"A place like this takes men who are a drain on the system and it puts them back on the streets as responsible productive members of society. It's enormous, over 40 years the number of men who have come through here. This place, it didn't give me my life back. It gave me a new life. I wear that badge of honor of being a 'Jellinek man'," said Wildsmith. "I will never forget Frank Kolinsky. His voice is in my head every day when I am making decisions."

Frank Kolinsky's ashes are scattered throughout the E.M. Jellinek Center grounds. As his spirit lives on through the men who find new life at the rehab center, his family hopes to spread the message of the value of all men.

"He [Frank] lived his life by the saying, 'God didn't make no trash.' And that's true," said a tearful Sandy Kolinsky. "It means being a good man. It means being honest. It means giving something back. We know how to do that. That's what E.M. Jellinek Center is and it is what we will always be."

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