The River Oak Center held its inaugural fundraising event on May 18 to help raise money and awareness for Florida’s first high school dedicated to students struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.
River Oak Center is a sober high school in Jacksonville that serves three counties in northeastern Florida. The school opened its doors in October under the direction of Dan Renaud and already has 12 students.
Renaud, executive director and founder of River Oak Center, is a certified addiction counselor with 25 years of experience working with youth. Renaud opened the school in hopes of bringing a comprehensive and supportive environment to students in recovery.
The fundraiser aimed to introduce new people to River Oak Center and to raise funds for school improvements. One of those improvements includes purchasing a vehicle to transport students to and from the school and school-related activities.
“We’re trying to get the word out, and we’re trying to raise money to buy a multiperson vehicle. We need a van or a bus,” Renaud told DrugRehab.com. “We have a lot of kids that want to come here, but they can’t get here because they don’t have transportation.”
The event hosted roughly 50 people and raised more than $5,000 through live and silent auctions. The auctions featured art work from current River Oak Center students and items donated by community organizations such as the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Speakers at the fundraiser included Renaud, River Oak Center students and board members. The program concluded with an instrumental rendition of “Purple Rain” by Prince, which was performed by a guitarist in recovery.
Renaud says the students’ excitement about the fundraiser shows how far the school has come in just eight months. He finds it rewarding to see students who at one time didn’t want to be at school at all fully embrace the program a couple weeks later.
“The first part of our job is to get them to want to come back and to want to be there,” said Renaud.
Once students are engaged, they start to support each other in the classroom, around campus and within the community. “They’re a part of that group,” Renaud said. “It’s their family.”
Kathleen is the mother of one of the first students who enrolled at River Oak Center. Her son Michael met with Renaud for counseling after he completed substance use disorder treatment and before Renaud opened River Oak Center.
Kathleen says the school has been wonderful for her son and family. It has given Michael a chance to be himself again and offers a community of support and love that he can always fall back on.
“They’re all a huge and tight group,” Kathleen told DrugRehab.com. “They’re outgoing, and they have fun together. If something happens to one of them and they can’t be there, they all worry and say, ‘When are they coming back?’ It’s all really awesome.”
According to Kathleen, one of the most important things for a young person in recovery is to have a community of peers who understands recovery and can support each other through it.
“It’s huge because they need to see there’s other kids their age dealing with it,” said Kathleen. “That’s the hardest part of being a teenager because they’re going through all sorts of stuff anyways, let alone without having to deal with addiction.”
Kathleen says the school is offering so much to students already and that growing River Oak Center will benefit the local community. She believes the key to doing that is to raise awareness about the school.
“There’s way more kids around that are struggling, and the parents don’t know about it because all you hear is bad publicity about [addiction],” said Kathleen. “Every time you talk to somebody who’s been around [addiction], they go, ‘Oh, my God, [a recovery high school] is such a good idea!’”
The students at River Oak Center are often the first people to tell you how much the school has changed their lives for the better.
Joey, a 17-year-old student, says that he has seen a profound positive change in his life after five months at River Oak Center. He told DrugRehab.com that the support he receives and the atmosphere of the school are the best parts about being a student there.
“Everything is really relaxed, and you always have someone there for you when you need it,” Joey said. “It’s just a good environment to be around. It’s a lot different from a regular school.”
It’s amazing how rapidly new students at River Oak Center embrace the program. Chandler, an 18-year-old student, has only been at River Oak Center for a month and has already seen the difference the school is making in his recovery.
“When I first came in, I was not with it,” Chandler told DrugRehab.com. “I did not want to be a part of it; I didn’t want to be sober. Once I got in there, I fell in love with the school, fell in love with the steps and felt like I could talk to anyone there, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
He says that River Oak Center has given him motivation to stay sober and that he always has someone to talk to about his problems.
In addition to helping students through recovery, River Oak Center gives students the chance to work on their academic performance as well. Liz, a 16-year-old student who has been at River Oak Center three months, says that the school has given her the chance to improve at school.
“My grades have gone up, and I actually go to school now,” Liz told DrugRehab.com.
She says that River Oak Center makes her feel comfortable and allows her to focus on the right things in her life.
“I love the staff and the friends that I’ve made,” said Liz. “Everybody is very accepting. You meet people who are going through the same stuff as you, and you’re away from the stuff that happens at normal high schools.”
The students want to see more recovery schools available for students who need that environment, according to Tucker, a 16-year-old student who’s been at River Oak Center three weeks.
“I think a lot of people could benefit from this,” Tucker told DrugRehab.com. “Obviously, it’s really hard to find schools like this. If there were a lot more, especially in the Jacksonville area, it would definitely help a lot of people out.”
One of the main differences between a regular high school and River Oak Center is how invested the staff is in the well-being of their students.
“I think it’s really the staff that sets it apart from every high school because the teachers actually care, and they want to help you get better,” said Liz.
For Renaud and his staff, River Oak Center is not just a job. They love working with their students and love being able to guide them toward a healthy and successful life. Anyone can see that Renaud and his staff are truly invested in their students’ success.
“The most amazing moment is every day when I show up and they show up,” said Renaud. “They’re here; they come to school every day. They’re not out getting high, they’re not skipping [and] they’re not off doing whatever.”
River Oak Center also has an afternoon program for students on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The afterschool program is led by Jada Helmer, a certified mental health therapist who works with adolescents in Jacksonville.
Helmer says that the afterschool program gives River Oak students the opportunity to become close with one another and offers a therapeutic group that can support its members through their newfound sobriety.
“[The students] develop a bond with someone that’s also in the same boat that they are in and understand how to have fun without using drugs and alcohol,” Helmer told DrugRehab.com.
You can visit the River Oak Center’s website to donate money toward the school’s transportation fund. In addition to financial gifts, students at the recovery high school benefit from in-kind gifts and time donated through volunteer work.