‘I was so hopeless, but I became hopeful’
Casa Serena is celebrating its 60th birthday with a luncheon Friday at the Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito and the addition of a new home for women challenged by addiction and mental health issues in Santa Barbara.
The charming two-story Victorian at the corner of De la Vina and Arrellaga streets is named Millie’s House in honor of Mildred Pinheiro, founder of Casa Serena, which opened nearby at 1515 Bath St. in 1959. A recovering alcoholic herself, she felt this community needed a place for women alcoholics to recover. With the help of friends, Ms. Pinheiro raised $38,000 to buy the home, and the Assistance League of Santa Barbara helped furnish it.
Millie’s House replaces two other houses run by Casa Serena — Grad House on Castillo Street and Oliver House on the Mesa.
“Although Casa Serena began as a home for women alcoholics, we now take women with all types of abuse,” said Lisette Fraser, executive director. “We see every sort of addiction. It’s rare to find a person suffering from only one type of abuse. Residents who must be at least 18 years old can live at Millie’s House with or without their children, and we request but don’t require that they be clean and sober at least 24 hours before moving in.”
After an intake assessment, the women can live at Millie’s House for an indefinite period as long as they spend at least 20 hours a week working, going to school, volunteering, or participating in any type of outpatient treatment program that furthers their recovery process.
“Our focus is on the underlying issues on why women choose substance abuse. We ask the why question,” said Ms. Fraser, 50. “We find that there has been a lot of trauma in their lives. We replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones. We also do a lot of work on self care with meditation and mindfulness with our culinary and gardening programs.”
Currently, the monthly rates for a shared room at Millie’s House are $1,450 and $1,700 for a private room. The monthly rate at Casa Serena’s main house is $5,000. The rate for women with children is based on how many children and how often they stay at the house.
“The cost can be covered by insurance, and scholarships are available. More than 60 percent of our clients get some type of financial assistance,” said Ms. Fraser.
New this fall is Casa Serena’s residential detox, which provides 24-hour care and support to manage withdrawal symptoms and stabilize clients as they prepare for treatment and withdrawal.
“This allows women to see our medical director, Dr. Karen Hord, right away,” said Ms. Fraser.
Among the services Casa Serena offers is a job readiness and education re-entry program.
“We help them find new jobs or start new careers, or we encourage them to go back to school and get their diplomas or degrees. We take them where they’re at. If they’re not ready, we wait. If they are ready, it’s full steam ahead,” said Ms. Fraser.
As an example of a tangible success story, she referred the News-Press to Sandra Mistretta, clinical director for Casa Serena. Now 60, she came to Casa Serena when she was 49.
“I was desperate for help. I was a functioning alcoholic and closet drug addict most of my life,” Ms. Mistretta told the News-Press. “I had my first drink when I was 8 years old and living in North Andover, Mass. When I was 12, my family moved to Seminole, Florida, and I began experimenting with drugs in junior high.”
Her family put her in a rehab facility for three months, where the philosophy, according to Ms. Mistretta, was “to break you down before they could build you up. I got real sneaky. I learned to say what they wanted to hear so I could do what I wanted to do.”
After leaving the program, Ms. Mistretta graduated from Seminole High School, where she got good grades even though she continued drinking, and married at the age of 18. The couple lived in Burnsville, Minn., for a year and then moved to southern California, living in Oxnard Shores, Woodland Hills and Ventura.
“I divorced twice, had two children, now 32 and 30, and hung around with people who loved to drink and party. I was a functioning alcoholic. I didn’t know about Casa Serena until someone gave me a slip of paper with the name on it at an AA meeting. I didn’t want to go. I was ashamed and embarrassed, but I went because I wanted to kill myself,” said Ms. Mistretta, who came to Casa Serena in 2008.
One of the first things a counselor suggested was that Ms. Mistretta go back to school, which she was reluctant to do, “because I didn’t think I would be a good student.”
Instead, she earned a 4.0 GPA while studying at Santa Barbara City College for two years and became a certified addiction treatment counselor while living at Casa Serena.
“Then I went to Antioch University in Santa Barbara and earned my bachelor’s degree in 2012, my master’s degree in clinical psychology in 2015 and became a licensed marriage and family therapist in 2018,” said Ms. Mistretta, who shares a home in downtown Santa Barbara with her partner of 18 years.
“I was actually asked to teach addictive studies at Antioch. Talk about a full circle. What I thought was my weakness turned out to be my strength in recovery. It’s a miracle I’m here on this planet. I was so hopeless, but I became hopeful. The staff at Casa Serena said, ‘Here is what you have to do, and your life will get better.’ They were so right.”
If you go
Casa Serena will celebrate its 60th anniversary at a luncheon beginning at 11:30 a.m. Friday in the Chandelier Ballroom at Rosewood Miramar Beach, 1759 S. Jameson Lane in Montecito. Tickets are $150. For more information, contact Lisette Fraser at 805-444-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Casa Serena will sponsor an interactive workshop exploring “The Medical Complications of Eating Disorders” during a free brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in the Casa Serena Serentiy Garden, 1515 Bath St. Co-sponsoring the event, which is open to the public, is Alsana, an eating recovery community. For more information, call 805-729-0182 or email email@example.com.