Carmel Valley resident says Walk for Sobriety benefit raises invaluable funds to help Americans battling addiction

By Karen Billing

One in six Americans will struggle with addiction but only one in 10 will receive the help they need to move their lives forward on a healthy path. The third annual Walk for Sobriety 5K Walk and Run on Saturday, June 21, is held to raise awareness for those 40.3 million Americans battling addiction, get more people moving in the right direction and celebrate those who have fought hard to remain clean and sober.

The walk, which begins at 8 a.m. at NTC Park at Liberty Station, benefits the McAlister Institute in El Cajon, a facility that provides high-quality, low-cost substance abuse treatment, drug intervention and recovery support systems for 2,500 teens and adults every month through its 27 programs.

Carmel Valley’s Dennis Ellman, a new board member at the McAlister Institute, knows personally how difficult and painful addiction can be, through his experience with his son’s addiction as a young adult.

“He’s one of the hopeful ones,” Ellman said of his son, now 32, healthy and heading to graduate school. “But we lost a lot of people which is always the hard part.

When his son was 18, four of his best friends died as a result of being deeply submerged in the drug culture. Ellman calls addiction an “elaborate cult,” where users find ways to get what they need and persist in addiction — they have to decide for themselves to get out and get better.

“Drug addiction is an epidemic among young adults,” Ellman said, “It’s a real tragedy for families to try to find ways to cope and deal with a world they never thought they’d be introduced to.”

At McAlister, there are a variety of services for everyone from pregnant women and troubled teens to ex-offenders and homeless men, from 30- to 90-day residential programs, recovery centers, safe housing and intervention services.

They have a perinatal detox program, which is a short-term, non-medical residential program to help pregnant women detox from alcohol and other drugs in a safe and supportive environment. Many women go on to receive further treatment at Kiva Learning Center for Women and Children, a long-term residential treatment program for women with and without children. Over the course of six months, clients receive housing, treatment planning, daycare and parenting classes, educational workshops, mental health counseling, domestic violence assistance, vocational training and recovery support services.

Many of the staff members at McAlister have suffered the challenges of addiction and collectively they have 1,000 years of sobriety — director Jeanne McAlister is celebrating 56 years of sobriety this year.

Ellman, a 15-year Carmel Valley resident who founded the public relations firm Beck Ellman Heald in 1986, was introduced to McAlister five years ago as he was helping write a speech for one of the institute’s board members.

“I just fell for her and the program and thought it was just terrific and what they do for the community was outstanding so I just become more and more involved,” Ellman said.

He continued to volunteer and his agency was hired to do the McAlister Institute’s public relations but separate from that, Ellman got involved at the board level just a few months ago.

Ellman said one of the key issues the board is looking into is a new building for McAlister in the South Bay area. McAlister currently leases its space and, as its programs continue to grow, the new facility would provide a permanent home to serve even more people in need.

“What I find really powerful with them is that they will see people regardless of their ability to pay, which is not common with drug and alcohol rehab centers,” Ellman said. “The dedication level is truly astonishing.”

The Walk for Sobriety started three years ago as a result of a conversation the board was having regarding the fact that nobody really wanted to hear about addiction or rehab programs. Then an advisor to the board, Ellman asserted that was not true.

“We need to change our thinking and realize what we have going here is just as important as any type of disease or social issue out there. This is a problem that affects so many people and to feel like we can’t talk about it is a mistake,” Ellman said.

He said drugs are often a news headline — celebrity overdoses, the heroin epidemic, the pot controversy — and the conversation is mostly focused on disease and addictive behavior.

“On the other hand, people do recover and stay in recovery and there’s a great deal of hope that doesn’t get talked about,” Ellman said.

He said rarely do people talk about what a rehab program is, what it looks like and how it works and what sobriety looks like.

They decided a community event that celebrates hope and recovery could be something empowering, touch a lot of lives of people who have been impacted by addiction and help further the cause of McAlister.

At the walk, many people wear a tally to show the number of days they have been sober on their t-shirts and Ellman said many family members celebrate those numbers too.

“The days are just as important to family members,” Ellman said. “You see a lot of emotions on walkers’ faces because addiction is an experience that really dominates a life.”

Last year’s event raised funds to sponsor more than 700 days of treatment and increased the number of people the institute was able to serve by 22 percent—an additional 1,350 people were directly impacted by the walk.

They are hoping this year will be even more successful and to continue to change that conversation, to “inspire change through advocacy and create a community of support for those impacted by the disease.”

To register, visit For more on the McAlister Institute, visit A lifetime artist, Ellman is also selling his artwork to support his fundraising. To view or purchase his works to support McAlister, visit