THINGS THAT MATTER – The Miracles of Verdun and Marina House
Most Barbadians may know nothing about Verdun – either Verdun in Barbados or Verdun in France. Tucked away in the countryside in the middle of the parish of St. John, just past Pool, everyone going to St. John’s Parish Church would have passed it without a second thought. From 1958 to 1989 it was the Presentation College, but when the school closed it was slowly becoming derelict until it was rescued by the Substance Abuse Foundation to become a place of healing. And its current role is a most appropriate evolution for a place with such a rich history.
Verdun House was the “great house” of a small plantation called The Attempt. It’s South of Small Town and close to Small Hope, Endeavour and Industry; these names are typical of the names given by the Quakers, that passionately fundamentalist, hard-working Christian group that was quite strong in Barbados in the 17th and 18th centuries. Verdun is an early nineteenth century house, built in classic Caribbean Georgian style after the 1831 hurricane. It was embellished with beautiful plaster ceilings and wall decorations by Mr. Rutter of Windsor Castle and Sam Lord’s Castle fame.
It was owned by one John McCollin in 1847, and passed through his daughter Elisabeth to the Toppin family; his granddaughter married Robert Parkinson, father of the famous photographer Henry Walter Parkinson. It was purchased in 1916 by Mr. Norman DeLisle Simpson of Guinea Plantation, and his wife Elizabeth, described by Sir Alexander Hoyos as “the chatelaine of Verdun”, was a roman Catholic and a philanthropist, giving the land and funds to build the Roman Catholic chapel, The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, and then passing the property to the Catholic College community and it became the site of Presentation College. Norman Simpson renamed the property Verdun, after the longest and most bloody battle of the First World War or indeed any war, lasting from February to December, 1916, and nearly a million people lost their lives. Verdun’s role today as a place of healing, giving lives back, is richly symbolic.
The Substance Abuse Foundation was formed as a charity in 1996 and Verdun was opened as a residential treatment centre for men in 2000. The School building became the primary centre and the great house the secondary centre - the accommodation for the second phase of the rehab programme. Restoration work was carried out by Homex to a very high standard, and was funded by the Rausing family, major supporters of the Foundation. The first CEO was Peter Boos, who remains now as chairman of the Board.
The great house sits on 13 acres of land, most of which is used for farming. It’s surrounded by beautiful lawns and magnificent trees, giving residents a most gorgeous and peaceful landscape. A chance meeting with a member of the Board of Directors, Barbara Trieloff-Deane a few days ago led to my visiting with my wife and friends Robert and Rhoda Green from Charleston. Marietta Carrington, who became CEO two years ago, gave us a splendid tour of both Verdun and the more recently established Marina House (2015) for ladies, situated in the hills of Newcastle, below St. John’s Church and overlooking Bath. I understand that Marina House is funded largely by the Maria Holder Memorial Trust.
The Substance Abuse Foundation was established “to fight the harmful impact of illicit drugs and alcohol on the shattered lives of citizens and their families in Barbados and the wider Caribbean." Its founders were a number of socially-aware, committed men and women who recognised the urgent need to help these victims with appropriate professional rehabilitation, in an enabling environment that meets internationally accepted standards of accommodation and treatment. In fact it is accredited by EATA, the European Association for the Treatment of Addictions, as of 21 August 2009.
The facilities are impressive: sixty bed accommodation at Verdun and fifteen at Marina House, group rooms, dining room, meditation room, lounges, medical office, library, computer lab and learning centre, beautiful lawns and a spacious sports field.
Its work and achievements are inspiring. Programmes include individual counselling, 12 Step facilitation and lectures, mental health & addiction counselling, medical, psychiatric and psychological services, group therapy, family therapy and family support groups, art therapy, spirituality, health & wellness support, life skills and work training placements, work therapy in a “greening” environment, professional development programmes and structured continuing care for up to 12 months. The entire operation is self-sustaining, with the farming and husbandry (sheep and poultry) feeding the clients; and the meals are said to be extremely good! Clients take part in all of the support operations - farming, vegetable gardening, the bakery and so on, and on our tour we sampled the coconut bread which was mouth-watering – (almost) as good as my wife’s!
Programmes begin with a 90-day abstinence-based, 12 Step-oriented residential treatment programmes, followed by a second stage programme where the clients live on the property and begin the process of integration back into society. The family programme is geared to heal the broken or strained relationships with an addict member and prepare the family as a unit to support the recovery process. That’s a most critical part of the whole rehab process – as well as combating the stigma associated with addiction, which is no respecter of persons – colour, class, creed, wealth or nationality.
More than 500 people have benefitted from the SAF programmes, with 40 to 50 people passing through the programmes each year. Success rates, with graduates returning to a productive life, are somewhere between 50 and 80 per cent and improving.
The Substance Abuse Foundation at Verdun House and Marina House is one of the great, unsung success stories of Barbados. For any family with a member who has suffered from addiction these successes do seem like miracles. And Verdun’s role is such a rich symbol of the history of the property - from a modest “Attempt” – named after the most horrendous battle ever, at Verdun in France, where nearly a million lives were lost, to the home of a spiritually committed philanthropist, the home of a church, of a spiritually guided boys school and now a place of healing. Congratulations to the dedicated staff, directors and generous donors who are making this possible.
The Substance Abuse Foundation is a registered Barbados Charity No. 206.
Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Peter Boos, Ms. Marietta Carrington and others for assisting me with information about Verdun and Marina House, and Mr. Don Mayers, for the historical background in his paper on the history of “The Attempt”.
(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Website: profhenryfraser.com)