Inside Track: Brian Elve pays his blessings forward

Guiding Light Recovery Program director uses his rock bottom story to help rehabilitate others.
1
Brian Elve went from playing professional basketball to living on the streets. Courtesy Hunter Zuk, Sabo PR

As director of the Guiding Light Recovery Program, Brian Elve has witnessed many transformations over the past half-dozen years that mirror his own story.

Elve grew up in East Grand Rapids with a hardworking teacher mom and banker father who raised him and his two younger sisters in the Church of the Nazarene. His parents were from Sparta and married young. Elve spent his earliest years living with them on campus while they worked toward their college degrees.

After graduating from East Grand Rapids High School in 1985, where he played sports, Elve went on to play basketball at Fork Union Military Academy, the University of Detroit Mercy, Western Wyoming Junior College and Montana State University-Bozeman. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the latter institution in 1991, thinking he would pursue a career in criminal justice. But life had other plans for him. He was recruited to play professional basketball with Athletes in Action, a sub-organization of Campus Crusades for Christ, and toured Europe with the team.

An injury ended his basketball career, and he then worked in the mortgage and sales industries in Bozeman and Cincinnati.

Elve had struggled with occasional binge drinking during college — he was kicked off the UD-Mercy team for breaking curfew at a bar — and he continued to struggle with sobriety in his career. After a short stint as a sales representative in Cincinnati for an automotive company, he quit his job to travel.

“About a year and a half, two years into that (job), I had this (thought that) I needed to figure out my purpose and what life’s all about,” he said. “I went to Australia for three or four months — Australia and New Zealand — and thought, you know, something’s just going to dawn on me.”

An opportunity to coach junior varsity men’s basketball at Calvin College (now Calvin University) brought him back to Grand Rapids in 1996. Although he said after high school that he would never go into education, Elve changed his mind and earned a secondary education teaching certificate in social studies from Grand Valley State University in 1999.

BRIAN ELVE
Organization:
Guiding Light
Position: Director of Guiding Light Recovery
Age: 53
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Erin Ledy; daughter, Josephine, 2; son, Maxwell, 15 weeks
Biggest Career Break: The opportunity to try something new as an employment counselor at Guiding Light in 2013.

He got hired as a teacher at Grand Rapids Public Schools and worked there for about eight or nine years. During the 2008-09 school year, his substance abuse problem, which he had been trying to hide, led to attendance issues, and he was let go.

Elve said when he lost that job, which had provided an identity for him and allowed him to continue in denial about his addiction, his world fell apart.

“That was kind of rock bottom for me. … There was a lot of evidence that there was a problem. And when I lost that (job), I just fell completely off the rails and put myself in some real physical danger due to drinking,” he said.

Elve ended up living on the streets for the next few years, until one morning, a man died right in front of him due to alcohol abuse. At that point, an acquaintance referred him to Guiding Light. He checked himself in as a client in 2012.

“That started my rebirth,” he said. He learned his “self-concept” — that he was strong enough to overcome anything on his own because he had played basketball — was off-base.

“(It) was just crazy, and it wasn’t serving me well in any way. It made me think that I had the power to change this addictive pattern that I had created, thinking, ‘I’m strong enough to fix it, and it will go away,’ or ‘If I get in better shape, I won’t do these things.’”

He said the Guiding Light Recovery Program meeting his basic needs of food, shelter and clothing — plus providing help from a mentor, sponsor and clinician — allowed him to “reset” and examine the problems that were holding him back.

“One thing that really hit me in the gut one day was someone asked me the question, ‘Who are you? Who are you as a human being? Who is this guy named Brian?’ … Who am I to say it was (a God thing), but in my story, that was definitely a powerful moment. Then the other part of that was (learning) that God might even delight in me, and there’s no doubt that God loves me. That just baffled my mind because I had a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, many opportunities from family, from friends in the community (and I believed) if anybody should have gotten sober, it should have been me. 

“… I learned how prideful I was, how selfish I was, but this time it didn’t take on that spin that I’m a bad person, but more that I just needed to surrender to some things and still realize that there’s a deep love of possibly (connecting) with other human beings. That shifted in me relatively quickly, but the ‘doing’ part of loving others or accepting love — I didn’t really know anything about that.”

Elve said around that time, his mom told him that she and the family needed a break from their relationship with him. While that was hard on all sides, it gave him the opportunity to focus on recovery without any background noise.

After about seven months in recovery, Elve began to realize he wasn’t ready to go back to teaching, that there was too much risk of a relapse involved, and that factory work didn’t appeal to him. At that time, Guiding Light was looking for an employment counselor to help men in recovery build resumes and look for work. Elve got the job in 2013.

After about a year of working in that role — during which time he helped launch, live in and oversee men’s transitional housing in Kentwood — the opportunity organically opened up to become the Guiding Light Recovery director, and he took it.

Elve is now eight years sober, married with two children and owns his own house in Grand Rapids.

He said he has worked to make Guiding Light Recovery a well-rounded program with rehab, transitional housing and employment components, and it’s working. As of now, 77% of men who complete the program and spend a year in the Iron House sober-living apartments are still sober a year later.

The program, which is free to participants and entirely funded by donations and grants, is a four- to six-month residential program that combines evidence-based practices, life-coaching, therapy, support groups, spiritual direction and resources to equip men to stay sober and live life in a new way.

On their first day, men are expected to wake up, make their beds and assist with chores as they launch into the intensive program of education classes, individual and group therapy sessions and weekly sessions with a life coach and spiritual director. They also have daily contact with outside community supporters who are committed to their recovery.

The pandemic threw a bit of a wrench into things, as Guiding Light temporarily vacated its facility at 255 S. Division Ave. so the Kent County Health Department could use it for COVID-19 testing for the Heartside population. This meant the recovery clients had to relocate to the Iron House for two to three months, the program stopped all new intakes, and the staff transitioned to working remotely.

But now, Guiding Light is back in its building, and the team is preparing to meet increased demand due to COVID. According to Nielsen data, alcohol sales in Michigan rose 34% from March to May compared to the same period last year, possibly due to the stress caused by the pandemic.

Elve said his main goal for the next year or so is to grow the program and increase its rate of success. With the current requirement that clients enroll for a minimum of four months, and they can’t be working during that time, Elve acknowledges the program “is not for everybody” at this time but he hopes to make it accessible to more people in the long term.

“These men really have a chance to live a different life. The thing that touches me deeply is when I see a guy reconnecting with his family, his wife, his kids — I might see him at an AA meeting or something — and he tells me about a new job (and new circumstances). Just to be involved in these men’s lives is a gift. I never thought it would happen to me.”

Facebook Comments