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TCIV: San Antonio Program Weathers Pandemic by Sticking by Patients, Staff and Community

December 05, 2020

Six weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and one day before he was to begin furloughing employees, Raul Ruelas, owner of San Antonio Recovery Center, was particularly struck by a report he watched on television, he told TCIV attendees in a Saturday session.

His city was making national news for the degree to which it was being ravaged by the pandemic. As images of lengthy lines at the local food bank moved across the screen, Ruelas said he had a revelation.

“I looked at my wife, who is my business partner, and I said, ‘I don’t think we are doing this correctly.’ She said, ‘What do you mean?’ ” Ruelas said. “Ultimately, when I go in that room tomorrow and I meet individually with those eight to 10 employees I’m planning on furloughing, I’m adding eight to 10 people to those lines at the food bank.

“That was really heavy for me. I did a lot of soul searching and praying. What is our mandate? What are we about? We say we’re about saving people from the disease of alcohol and drug addiction, but we also tell employees they are really important. I can’t say that and not really mean it.”

And so, furlough meetings with staff members were replaced by an emergency congregation of executive leadership, and the SARC Cares Initiative was born. The plan covered three areas:

  • Reaching out to patients to see what their families need
  • Assuring employees that although they might be asked to take on different tasks from their normal responsibilities, they would maintain their pre-pandemic employment
  • Finding community causes to which San Antonio Recovery Center could offer support

The plan was a drastic departure from the 2020 Ruelas had envisioned at the start of the year. Two months earlier, SARC was set to open a new detox and residential treatment facility, riding high from strong 2019 earnings and a patient census in its existing facility that stayed near capacity. The company went ahead with the launch of the new facility in mid-February and quickly reached 50% capacity. But shortly after as the pandemic quickly spread, SARC’s revenues plunged by 60%. Employees were spending hours in line at local stores to get basic supplies after the company was unable to obtain materials from its usual vendors, who were directing their limited resources to larger hospital clients.

The SARC Cares Initiative revitalized the organization. Patients were consolidated into the new second location so that the company could renovate its first property. Employees traded their traditional tools of recovery for paint brushes and rakes. Meanwhile, 33 staff members were divided into three teams, each of which was provided with $2,000 to give to a local cause in need. Each team then made a pitch on behalf of their given recipient, and SARC executives selected a winning presentation to receive an additional $10,000.

Along the way, SARC has weathered the storm and regained its patient census this year, Ruelas said. Closing out 2020, the organization has grown its staff to more than 40 employees and increased its outpatient offerings (largely conducted over video chat services) by 300%. Further expansion, including the development of sober homes and more outpatient programs, is being discussed for 2021.

Margins for 2020 ultimately will be down, Ruelas said, but he added that the company overall is poised for growth next year.

“We are better positioned than we’ve ever been, and it’s because of the time, effort and energy we put into taking care of our clients and employees,” Ruelas said.

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