On a sunny afternoon, Fort Lyon played host to a community picnic open to anyone in the lower Arkansas Valley. The event Saturday was put on to show off the new Fort Lyon and potentially draw new businesses to the area.
Fort Lyon - like many of its residents - has a story: What started out as a fort for the U.S. Army became a VA hospital, then a minimum-security prison and is now a rehab facility for homeless people dealing with substance abuse issues. With around 200 current residents occupying a few of its buildings, this quiet and quaint campus has plenty of space for new opportunities.
“There’s been some ideas around bringing in some farming opportunities,” said Ellie Adelman. “One of the ideas that we’ve heard a few times is to set up some kind of a solar field, so that we would be able to generate solar energy both for the campus and the surrounding area.”
As a fellow with the Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise at the University of Denver, Adelman has been working with the state’s Department of Local Affairs.
Her role is to help the department identify business opportunities on the Fort Lyon campus via unused land and buildings, to drive business to the area and create jobs for its residents.
But that wasn’t the only goal of the event. Creating a bridge between Bent County and Fort Lyon was one of the main goals of the community picnic.
“Today and moving forward I think one of the main focuses with Fort Lyon is the fact that Fort Lyon is a huge resource,” said Sammie George, director of the Bent County Development Foundation.
George’s goal is to work on partnerships with the Department of Local Affairs, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and other organizations like the Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development. Another objective is showing off the potential that the campus has to offer.
“This is somewhere you could come and have a picnic if you wanted to,” said George. “There’s been this disconnect for a long time between Fort Lyon and pretty much the rest of the community, whether you’re talking about Bent County or other counties.”
One way Saturday’s picnic attempted to bridge the gap between the community and Fort Lyon was their “ask a resident” booth, occupied by Damian Carroll and Jason Sweeney, recovering addicts who have turned their lives around thanks to the facility.
“Before I came to Fort Lyon, I was shooting up meth and heroin on the side of Denver Public Library and sleeping behind dumpsters,” said Sweeney.
Today, Sweeney is a full-time student at Otero Junior College and vice president of Phi Theta Kappa honor society. He spoke about how none of those accomplishments would have been possible without Fort Lyon. Sweeney, who has been in other recovery programs, spoke adamantly about how the freedom to better yourself outside of the program makes Fort Lyon one of the best.
Eleven months ago, Carroll was living on a bridge drinking half a gallon of vodka a day. Today, his life has taken a complete turn for the better as he attends 12, 12-step meetings a week. And he spoke about how because of the program, he’s repaired the 30 years of damage he caused with his family and friends all over the globe.
“It was eye-opening,” said Caitlin Hanagan about the success stories she heard from the Fort Lyon residents who visited her food truck, Almost Home Cooking.
Fort Lyon is filled with success stories of people like Sweeney and Carroll. Yet there are some people who take advantage of the program.
“We get a lot of residents here that are just looking for a place to stay during the winter, and they’re easy to spot here,” said Robert Martin. “That upsets me for a simple fact of there are people out there that are begging to God to give them a second chance in life.”
Martin has been on the campus for around nine months and has remained sober during that time. After doing some research, he chose Fort Lyon to continue his recovery, which began 14 months ago when, while living on the side of a mountain, he decided to stop his addiction to alcohol. After quitting cold turkey, Martin left all of his worldly positions on that mountain to start his life anew and pursue a sober lifestyle.
In addition to his 14 months of sobriety, Martin obtained a job with Bent County and has developed his own meeting at the facility that serves as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous.
The freedom offered to residents can come with its pitfalls, but many like Martin, Sweeney and Carroll have used this independence to help them in their recovery.
The liberty to pursue betterment outside of the facility and craft a path to recovery has created a nice, laid-back culture you can feel as you pass through the gates of Fort Lyon.
“To me, life is like a book,” said Martin. “How can you expect to read the next chapter if you keep re-reading the last one?”
Much like turning the page of your favorite novel or waiting for the next dramatic scene of your favorite TV show, the unknown of what lies ahead in many cases can be frightening.
Bent County Commissioner Jean Sykes spoke about how this fear of the unknown is why the bridge between Fort Lyon and Bent County is yet to be connected. She said working on partnerships between the two communities can help people better understand the unknown.
“Everyone of us has a story of our own, good, bad or otherwise,” said Sykes. “And these individuals are working very hard to become viable citizens, and our community typically has been very welcoming and understanding.
“I would encourage our citizens to continue to be that and to really get to know the people before they make a decision. Because one bad apple in any particular situation does not make the whole group bad.”
Fort Lyon plans on hosting more events this summer to integrate the campus into the communities around the Arkansas Valley. The next is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. July 11 and will feature the Almost Home Cooking food truck and games for people to play.