“There were Spanish(-language) AA meetings, but no Burmese meetings; about the best (Allen County) Probation could do was send them to an (English as a Second Language) class, which really didn't help with their underlying problem,” said Chesebrough.
CVC founder Saneta Maiko saw the need for a program and was able to get grant money through the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation to get it started. It is the only substance-abuse program in Fort Wayne that has a Burmese translator. What would normally be a one-hour session takes two hours because of the added time for the translation. There are two groups that meet once a week at the Catherine Kasper Place, 2826 S. Calhoun St.. About 40 to 50 clients have been seen since the program started in October 2009.
Chesebrough says he has clients of all ages, from high school students to people of retirement age, men and women.
“Alcoholism is an equal-opportunity disease,” he said.
He says his clients are often from refugee camps, where they have drank or used drugs for years. In the camps it is considered acceptable behavior.
Part of what his clients are learning is what is and isn't acceptable behavior in this culture.
One of the challenges of the group is describing the 12 steps so the meaning is not lost in translation or through cultural differences.
Sometimes this means he has to act things out to get the message across.
Many people have come through the program who have more cultural transgressions than an addiction.
One man was given a fine by the Department of Natural Resources for carrying a fishing net without a fishing license. Chesebrough tries to spend time on social norms so clients have an easier time assimilating into the culture and won't have problems like that.
Chesebrough knows first-hand what it means to stumble with alcohol; he is a recovering alcoholic. He has been sober for 10 years, and this is not the first AA group he has started, although it is the first for Burmese.
“I really believe I was given a second chance in life,” he said.
Now a father of three and a full-time student at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, as well as working for CVC, Chesebrough says he feels as if he went through a spiritual change during his recovery.
He is quick to point out he doesn't steer his clients in any particular religious direction; many are Buddhists and some are Muslim. He does suggest they get in touch with their spirituality.
Last summer he took the group on a camping trip.
“It was more a learning experience for me than them,” Chesebrough said.
He described the men cooking a Burmese meal over the fire, then piling the food on a clean trash bag. They all gathered around the food to eat, scooping their portions up with their fingers. That night, instead of sleeping in the tents and sleeping bags provided, they slept on the ground by the fire using their shirts as pillows.
“Some of these guys lived in the jungle before they came over here; it was really rough,” Chesebrough said.
In the year since the group started, some clients have completed their probation, and several members have graduated from the program. Others have lasted only a couple of weeks. Clients on probation must show up to the class for a year or they will violate the terms of their probation. Occasionally they go back to jail for failing to come. Again, cultural differences mean clients don't always understand the consequences of their actions.
“I don't care if they come here drunk, just so long as they show up we can keep working on their problem,” Chesebrough said.
As a firm believer that the problem of alcohol is rooted in the family, he would like to expand the program to include AL-Anon, taking it to apartment complexes, such as Autumn Woods, where many Burmese live. That way he could not only help the abuser but other family members too.
“Of course, we will have to get more funding before we can do that,” Chesebrough said.