Kevin O’Neill-Boehm expected to work as a cook in the kitchen of Alano Club of Kent County but, after a stint in sobriety court, found himself as the new operations manager. Photo by Johnny Quirin
When Kevin O’Neill-Boehm tells the story of how he got to the Alano Club of Kent County, he punctuates it with a five-word phrase that becomes more unbelievable with each use.
In between the telling of his four drunken driving arrests, his suicide attempt, the car accident that nearly cost him his life, his court appearances, jail sentences and numerous rehabilitation program stints, O’Neill-Boehm will say, “And I still wasn’t done.”
It wasn’t until he stood in court after his fourth DUI offense and given an ultimatum — life in prison or sobriety court — that O’Neill-Boehm finally had his attempts at recovery take.
“People ask if I even thought about it, and some of us do,” he said. “But I’m a living example that sobriety court works. I didn’t come in here because I wanted to get sober. Somewhere along the line, I wanted to stay sober. I needed the help.”
O’Neill-Boehm has been the executive director of the Alano Club of Kent County since 2013 and will hit his nine-years-clean date this fall. Prior to his appointment as executive director, he was the recovery treatment facility’s operations manager for five years, a job he was given instead of the cook job he already had accepted.
Unemployable because of his criminal background, the Alano Club asked O’Neill-Boehm to be its new cook. But first, he had to serve a month-long sentence. When he returned from jail, the Alano Club had undergone a restructuring, and instead, O’Neill-Boehm was asked to be the operations manager.
“We were in trouble here,” O’Neill-Boehm recalled. “We were $120,000 in debt, we had no money and I knew nothing about nonprofit management — but they gave me the keys and said here you go.”
When O’Neill-Boehm took over, he went about the process of helping turn the Alano Club around. He overhauled the accounting system, reduced expenses by eliminating the kitchen — a controversial move within the club’s community, and meeting attendance dipped for a while — began writing grant proposals and performed community outreach to recover those who stopped coming to meetings when the kitchen was gone.
“We had to rebrand ourselves and actually act like a nonprofit and get sophisticated,” he said.
A West Michigan native, O’Neill-Boehm’s battle with substances began early on. He was shuttled from school to school as his family moved around before attending Grand Rapids Central High School. There, he was a high-level student, serving as the student representative on the board of education, president of his class and, ironically, the president of Students Against Drunk Driving. Hoping to one day become a lawyer, O’Neill-Boehm landed an internship with the U.S. attorney’s office his junior year — but trouble with the law forced him to transfer to another school.
He went on to college at Davenport University, but it didn’t last long.
“The drug dealer called in the middle of class, and I never went back,” he said.
O’Neill-Boehm spent the next 25 years in and out of various recovery programs, treatment centers and jail, struggling with a disease that consumed his entire life.
Not long after his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the Alano Club, O’Neill-Boehm attempted to commit suicide by filling a soda bottle with vodka and driving into oncoming traffic on I-96.
“I (had) a state trooper’s boot on my neck, telling me not to move,” he said.
And he still wasn’t done.
He completed prison boot camp at Cassidy Lake, a Special Alternative Incarceration Facility in Chelsea, but upon release, violated his parole and was sent to another treatment center. He completed his parole and eventually got to one full year of sobriety. But when his mother passed, O’Neill-Boehm spiraled.
“When she passed is when I lost it,” he said. “And we look for any reason to use. I look back now, almost nine years sober, and realize I was looking for any reason to go back out. It took a year and a half for me to come back (to the Alano Club), and it was the individuals in this building who went and got me. It took four interventions, they had to drag me back here.”
Distraught one night, O’Neill-Boehm begged his partner to take him to his mother’s gravesite in a blizzard. The car went off the road and hit a pole, the glove compartment exploded in O’Neill-Boehm’s face, slicing his neck, ripping off a chunk of his head and severely marring his face and injuring his back.
O’Neill-Boehm came back from that accident in a neck brace and body brace to the Alano Club, received his 90-day chip and figured he could handle being the designated driver for his friends going to the bar. He had two drinks and skipped out to see his drug dealer when he was pulled over for his fourth DUI. That finally did it.
After completing sobriety court, O’Neill-Boehm was welcomed back to the Alano Club.
“Apparently, there’s a class in third grade where they teach you coping skills, but I never took it,” he said. “I learned those necessary coping skills here. This is where I learned and was allowed to grow up. Here is where I did my community service, 400 hours, and then they offered me a job.”
When O’Neill-Boehm took the helm, the Alano Club had four programs. It has now expanded far beyond those initial programs and has expanded and diversified its board and programming to better suit the needs of everyone.
“We welcome anyone no matter what, and we help them get to where they need to go,” he said. “That’s a mission that was instilled in me. Coming from where I came to where I was kind of dropped into, that’s a belief system.”
Though he was inexperienced at the start of his time as executive director, O’Neill-Boehm has steered the nonprofit back to stability. One of the toughest lessons he learned through the process is that it’s OK to ask for help.
“I was such a perfectionist, so it was a learning experience for me,” he said. “It finally clicked when a good friend of mine on the board told me, ‘Kevin, you don’t have to act like you know everything. We already know you,’ because at that point, I’d been there for years as a client. I think people generally are there to help you, so ask for help.”
At 41, O’Neill-Boehm is going back to school. He’s enrolled at Aquinas College, where he’s studying nonprofit management and business. The Alano Club has grown in leaps and bounds since he began his term as executive director — recently, the nonprofit launched a $90,000 opiate prevention program to fight back against the largest man-made crisis in our time — and last year, it was nominated for a 2016 Better Business Bureau Torch Award, signifying the organization’s excellence.
O’Neill-Boehm is proud of the work he’s done to get himself back to a place of serenity and in getting the Alano Club back on track to help the dozens of people who come through those doors looking for help.
And he’s still not done.