Bible-based recovery center seeks to cure addiction among Sacramento’s Slavic youths

Behind a locked gate on E Street in rural North Highlands, about a dozen young men pray to God to deliver them from addiction.

They come from Russian immigrant communities in Sacramento and around the country to this beige, ranch-style house with a big garden out back. Here, they detail cars, raise vegetables and sit in the sauna with the notion of sweating out their poisons. They spend hours each day praying and studying the Bible – part of the God Will Provide treatment regimen.

God Will Provide is a nonprofit organization that grew out of a ministry in Oregon. Because it does not offer medical treatment, it requires no license – only the belief of its counselors and participants. It runs two facilities here, under the name Sacramento Life Change Centers.

“We understand that Jesus and God is the only way people can get freedom and stay free,” said counselor Paul Kutsar, a former addict from Portland who came to the E Street house for help getting clean two years ago.

The Sacramento area has at least half a dozen such Bible-based residential rehab centers. They’ve been set up in recent years to address what community leaders say is a growing level of substance abuse among the children of evangelical Christians who emigrated to Sacramento from the former republics of the Soviet Union. The abuse in this community, particularly of painkillers and heroin, mirrors a growing problem in the population nationwide.

God Will Provide is the largest such treatment provider in Sacramento. It runs two homes for men in North Highlands and plans to open a house for women here in January. Residents range in age from 18 to 29. They stay for six to nine months, often followed by a mission trip.

“We give them no aspirin, just food, water and sleep,” said counselor Mark Koozman, 23, a recovering heroin addict. “Then we gather around them in a circle and pray for them, and it gets easier.”

Despite such testimonials, some critics in the Russian community question whether religion alone can effectively combat substance abuse.

Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Vitaly Prokopchuk, who describes himself as a religious person, called the spiritually based centers “very weak.”

Addicts, he said, “need to be monitored by a professional physician who can deal with physical symptoms,” he said. “So far, our community is losing the battle big time.”

One drug and alcohol treatment expert noted that the methods employed by God Will Provide appear similar to those used for decades by other groups.

Faith-based programs have long been a component of the recovery movement, starting with Alcoholics Anonymous, the largest of the social recovery models, said Thomas Renfree, deputy director of Substance Use Disorder Services for the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California.

“If someone goes in really believing that God will heal them, that sort of positive thinking can have benefits,” he said.

Most can’t pay

The God Will Provide International Mission was founded in 2004 by the Rev. Peter Nakhaychuk, a Ukrainian immigrant in Oregon, said his son, the Rev. Victor Nakhaychuk, a senior pastor who runs the two Sacramento Life Change Centers. It opened its first rehab center in Portland.

In December 2011, the group expanded with a center in North Highlands, Victor Nakhaychuk said. Since then, rehab centers have opened in Everett, Wash.; Chicago; and New York, along with a second center in North Highlands and a women’s center in Portland, bringing the number of U.S. centers to seven, Nakhaychuk said. The group also operates rehab centers in Honduras, Mexico, Ukraine and Vienna.

Each center houses about 10 clients at a time. Most can’t pay the $300 monthly fee, often because they are cut off from the help of their families and churches, Nakhaychuk said. Clients detail cars and do moving jobs to help fund the organization.

At the E Street house in North Highlands, the young men sleep in bunk beds, cook their own food and do their own cleaning. They take turns leading Bible study in an immaculate common room with a new wood floor and a long folding table and chairs.

God Will Provide did not offer precise statistics on the long-term sobriety of its clients. In 2013, 300 people entered the program nationwide and about 150 completed it, Nakhaychuk said. Of those who finished last year, he said, about 100 remain in the ministry, serving in a church or on one of the program’s missions around the world.

“We can only really look at those who have finished the program all the way and have found themselves inside the church and in the body of Christ,” Victor Nakhaychuk said. “A very high percentage of those have stayed sober up to 10 years.”

Every year, the number of patients has increased. The organization is building orphanages and churches in the 10 countries where it has established missions, along with new rehab centers, he said. And while most of the patients have roots in the former Soviet Union, some Latinos and European Americans have entered the program.

While those who drop out may not be sober – God Will Provide doesn’t keep track – those who have finished the program and joined the ministry have enjoyed at least a 50 percent success rate, Nakhaychuk said.

Renfree, the substance abuse treatment expert, said a 50 percent success rate is similar to that enjoyed by other groups that offer a social recovery form of drug treatment.

The head counselor in North Highlands is Roman Svyatetskiy, 27, a recovering addict from Denver. Svyatetskiy said he was freed from addiction three years ago at the E Street house.

Svyatetskiy said he just returned from Honduras, where he and other missionaries preached to drug addicts, gang members and hit men working for drug cartels.

“Today some of them are free and they love the Lord,” he said.

Not everyone was so transformed. Grigoriy Bukhantsov was a high-school dropout struggling with methamphetamine addiction and mental health problems. He stayed about a month in the North Highlands recovery home in 2012, counselors said. After dropping out, he allegedly stabbed to death his older brother’s wife, Alina, their 3-year-old daughter Emmanuela and 2-year-old son Avenir in their Rancho Cordova home in October 2012.

Bukhantsov was charged with three counts of murder, and the District Attorney’s Office has asked for the death penalty. He is being evaluated to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.

Growing drug problem

Leaders in the Russian and Ukrainian communities in Sacramento say drug abuse among youths is a serious and growing problem.

Census records show Sacramento has about 60,000 residents with Russian or Ukrainian ancestry, but community leaders say large extended families – many with 10 or more children – have boosted that number to nearly 100,000. Between 25,000 to 30,000 attend local Slavic churches, most of them Baptists and Pentecostals.

Some of the American-born and raised kids rebel against their strict, church-based upbringing and turn to crime and drugs, said Prokopchuk, a Ukrainian immigrant and a Sacramento County deputy sheriff. “I’ve seen the community’s drug problem going up 20 to 30 percent per year,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t break out drug offense figures by ethnicity, but Prokopchuk estimates several thousand Slavic young people smoke marijuana, and several hundred use OxyContin and heroin. He said drug dealers have shown up in Slavic churches on Sunday, flashing their laser pointers on the ceiling to let potential customers know how to find them.

On March 24, a Moldovan pastor’s son, Amerson Kioroglo, died of a heroin and alcohol overdose, said Sacramento County Coroner Kim Gin. “We are noticing more heroin use over the past year,” Gin said.

The increase mirrors growth in opiate abuse among the larger population. Emergency room visits related to opiate overdoses nearly doubled in the Sacramento region from 2006 to 2012, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Vladimir Yarmoluk is a Belarusian refugee who’s been a pastor in Sacramento for 18 years. He also works for the nonprofit Slavic Charitable Association. He said he knows of at least a dozen refugees from the former Soviet Union who have died from substance abuse in the past five years. The association has handed out 5,000 drug testing kits to parents over the past six months, he said.

“For a long time it was ignored by our community,” Yarmoluk said of the growing substance abuse problem. “But now it touches too many people, including relatives of pastors, so the community responded the way they can, even with those rehab centers.”

Ruslan Gurzhiy, who runs the news website Slavic Sacramento, said he’s gone to local Russian cemeteries and counted 87 graves of people ages 16 to 35 who have died because of drugs, alcohol, homicide and suicide. “Some parents beat their kids if they don’t pray, and I know people who went from praying to drugs,” said Gurzhiy, 32, who has reported on the growth of grass-roots recovery centers.

Some Slavic leaders say the God-based recovery centers may not be enough to address the community’s growing addiction problem.

Florin Ciuriuc, director of the Slavic Community Center, said the recovery homes do not work.

“You just don’t take (addicts) to a house and make them read the Bible all day long,” he said. “Sometimes they have to be under a doctor’s care, or they’re on probation, running from the law and missing court dates.”

Ciuriuc, the longtime liaison between the Sheriff’s Department and the Slavic community, said he would like to see more oversight of the homes.

The Sacramento area lacks culturally appropriate drug treatment facilities for Soviet refugees, said social worker Tatiana Shevchenko, who runs the Russian Information & Support Service to connect people with mental health services.

“Many refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, historical, psychological and intergenerational trauma,” she said. “The Soviet Union destroyed mosques, synagogues and churches. People who listened to Elvis Presley or the Beatles were diagnosed as schizophrenics and administered psychotropic drugs.”

Young people, meanwhile, often wind up lonely and isolated from their immigrant parents, who tend to view American culture as too permissive, Schevchenko said. Some wind up self-medicating with drugs, she said. And many Slavic parents fear that if they seek mental health treatment for themselves or their children, Child Protective Services will label them bad parents and take their kids away.

Only the Bible

Michael Kumansky, 20, arrived at the North Highlands house last spring. His mother, Svetlana Kumansky, runs the popular Russian restaurant Firebird, where Michael worked during high school. Two days after he arrived, his T-shirt was damp after a night of cold sweats.

“The first three days of recovery are really hard and everything’s painful,” he said then.

Kumansky’s descent into drug abuse began at Granite Bay High School when he was 14. He started with marijuana. At 19, he said, he used heroin and methamphetamine.

A week before he checked into God Will Provide, he said, a woman injected him with meth. “I looked into her eyes and saw she had no soul,” he said. “And this evil spirit started coming closer to me, so I left her house going 80 miles an hour straight to the restaurant.”

There, he said he begged his father to call an exorcist, even though he’d never been religious. His father brought him to the E Street house. After two days, he’d read the first 10 chapters of the Book of John.

Four months later, Kumansky had settled into the house and its highly structured routine. When he sat down with The Sacramento Bee last month, he had just returned from an 11-day evangelical mission to Matamoros, Mexico. His skin was clear, and he looked well-groomed and fit.

Kumansky described the schedule at God Will Provide this way: The “brothers” in the house wake at 6:45 a.m. and start praying by 7. After breakfast, they have an hour of Bible study. From 9 a.m. to noon, they work detailing cars, cutting grass, cleaning house and helping people move. After a lunch usually featuring borscht from noon to 12:30 p.m., they return to work from 12:30 to 3 p.m., followed by an hour of free time, then another hour of Bible study and youth church at night several days a week. Those going through withdrawal go to the sauna from 6 to 9 p.m.

“Here, we’re secluded from all technology, only listen to Christian music and are saturated with God,” he said. “We don’t even have books; we only have the Bible.”

Kumansky said living in the house has taught him to be more organized and independent. He recounted how he had learned to fold and iron his own clothes, and talked about his jobs taking care of the chickens and rabbits, and sorting the garbage.

“I feel good, I feel free, I feel happy and feel I can actually love people,” he said. “I used to fake love. I was broken and shattered inside, and God has rebuilt the fragments of my life.”