Rickenbaker retires after 43 years | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | December 29, 2017 5:12 pm
Last Updated: December 27, 2017 at 11:50 am
By KATRENA McCALL
For the past 43 years, Ron Rickenbaker has helped his community.
As director of the Colleton County Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, his life’s mission has been to help with the recovery of thousands of Colleton County residents from addiction: everything from alcohol to heroin. But come Jan. 2, he’s going to start a new life.
Rickenbaker will retire in January, turning over the reins of the Colleton County Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse to someone new. It’s been a great ride, one that he’s enjoyed, but it’s time.
He joined the commission in 1974, just after graduating from The Baptist College, with then director Scott Bagnal. Over the years, he did a little bit of everything from counseling to education to running a halfway house — “whatever came up that the community seemed to need.” He became director in 1996 when Bagnal retired.
“Back then, there was really no specific academic training you could get for addiction. It was a fleeting word in most institutions. Everyone knew what it was, but it was one of those hidden diseases — you didn’t talk about it,” he said.
That part has changed over the years, but the reality of addiction has not. Back in the 70s, most of the people he dealt with had alcohol problems. Then came alcohol and marijuana, then alcohol and cocaine and now, alcohol and opium. “The constant in it is alcohol, all the way through. Alcohol is still the number one complaint. It’s easer to say that ‘I drink too much’ than to say ‘I take way too many pills,’” he said.
That reluctance is something he and his staff have to work through with the people they serve. “Eventually, when their head clears up and their heart clears up, they begin to understand what it’s all about. And their priorities change and recovery starts to take over. Maybe they don’t always stay abstinent, but they’ve gained employment, better health, they’ve got their families back. They’ve gone back to school. They’ve done some very positive and progressive things,” he said.
And that’s been the greatest reward of the job for Rickenbaker. “Living in the community and seeing people that I know have been through here. You can see the difference in their faces, their bodies and their hearts and minds. And it’s good,” he said.
For him, the rewards have been worth it. “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge. It’s one of those jobs where if you didn’t enjoy it, and you didn’t see some success, you’d probably find it very difficult to stay.” But he’s stayed for 43 years.
One of the high — and low — points of that long career was the women’s residential program, where women undergoing treatment could come stay and bring their babies with them. “If there was a highlight, it was knowing that those babies were safe with us. Just protecting those babies, making sure they had the best start they possibly could, is one of the things we fought for the most,” he said.
The low point came when funding for the program was cut in half and had to change to an outpatient system. “One of the lower points of my career was not being able to provide protection for those babies who needed supervision, needed somebody to hold them, needed somebody to look out for their best interests, and help mothers understand what it was all about,” he said. Out-patient treatment (which is still offered) is just not the same.
In recent years, the commission has had to change direction again to deal with the ever-growing opioid problem, which requires more of a partnership with the medical community than was needed for previous drug addictions. Now it’s a two-part process. To successfully recover from opioid addiction — whether a legal prescription or illegal drug — requires both the medication available from doctors and the counseling offered by the commission’s staff.
Opioids “run the gamet” from legal drugs and medications to illegal drugs like heroin. He’s found there are basically three categories of opioid abuse. “What we have is a combination of people who have legitimate pain who have legitimate pain and began taking legitimate medications to resolve their pain and they took too much for too long and then have trouble getting off of it,” he said. “Then there are those who will do anything to get a medication that’s perfectly legitimate for their own economic benefit — they take that prescription and sell it.” The last category includes heroin users, but in Colleton County, “it’s not as much about heroin as it is the pills.”
But now, it’s time for Rickenbaker to take a step back. His motto over the years has always been “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” And he’s tired of leading.
“Sometimes we get to the point that we just don’t have any more energy. I just don’t have the energy to fight every day to get funding, to get resources, to prove our worth … So now instead of taking the lead, I’m going to either follow or get out of the way.”
He and his wife, Pam, have moved from their farm in Round O to a “new nest for our retirement” at Point South — a place where they can get to their boat from the back yard. They’ll also be closer to their son, Justin, who lives with his family in Beaufort — including new grandson, 4-month-old Levi — and have time to spend with daughter Cameron (who is a counselor in Abbeville), Pam’s mother in Charleston and Ron’s mother and sister, who still live in Round O.
“I’m going to rest for a couple of months. I’ve been asked by other agencies in the area if I’d help with certain projects, and I’ll probably entertain doing that after a while. And then I’ll just see,” he said.
“On balance, it’s really been a fun ride. But I’m ready to jump on another horse now, though.”