"If she doesn't get into your program she is going to die," is what was told to Carolyn Ahlstrand about a current resident at a new sober living house in Rockland.

Ahlstrand with partner Rob Patterson, recently opened a sober house for women only in Rockland.

One of only two such facilities in Maine, the private residence located at 102 Masonic St. opened its doors earlier this year. The Virginia House has accommodations for seven residents. Run by Ahlstrand and Patterson of Cushing, the house currently has two residents. The other facility for women only, located in Portland, has 12 beds.

Residents said having a safe, serene, sober environment to begin their recovery journey is an incredible blessing.

"My goal is to provide a beautiful environment for women whose lives have been totally wrecked," Ahlstrand said. "Women have lost their jobs, their families, their children," she said. "It is totally devastating for them."

A person who has been through some recovery usually acquires a few tools to try to stay sober, but sometimes it is just not the right fit. One of the residents is in this predicament, realizing this after relapsing five times in her recovery process.

"It's all about hope," said Ahlstrand. "They look around them and say 'I have nothing,' but someday I want them to be able to look in the mirror and say 'I am beautiful and I will have a full life again'."

The facility assists in establishing a stabilization program for each resident upon entry to deal with typically deferred crises including health, financial and relationship issues by helping to identify available community resources.

Virginia House has a full-time, live-in manager who is eight years in recovery. Patterson said that was done by design as neither he nor Ahlstrand have "walked the walk."

The couple acquired the 1902 Victorian house in August and began work in September, mainly creating an extra room upstairs, splitting the hallway, and adding a functional bathroom downstairs. Ahlstrand added a feminine touch with paint, window treatments, and chandeliers.

Strict rules are enforced at Virginia House, including curfews, daily chores, attendance of 90 12-step meetings in 90 days, obtaining a sponsor, seeking employment or community service, and attending weekly house meetings.

The house has a zero tolerance policy, meaning immediate dismissal from Virginia House if any of the rules are violated.

"One person could bring down the whole house," said Ahlstrand. Eight other potential residents were turned down for various reasons, she said. The house accepts women in all types of recovery.

The Psychiatric and Addiction Recovery Center Unit at Pen Bay Healthcare serves as the primary feeder for Virginia House at this point, said Ahlstrand. She and her resident manager interview potential clients prior to their release from the PARC Unit to see if they would be a good blend with the current residents. One of the current residents is from the PARC Unit, the other is from Crisis Stabilization Unit which is an undisclosed facility.

Following a brief stay in the PARC or CSU, some people in recovery go to Choice Skyward for Intensive Outpatient or IOP services while they wait for placement in a rehabilitation facility. Virginia House prefers to take in people who have been through some recovery, but that is complicated because of the limited amount of time people can stay in those types of facilities due to varying restrictions.

There is a minimum of a four-month waiting period for most of the rehabs in the area, said Ahlstrand, "and by then, how many people have died?"

Patterson said they had initially thought of opening a sober house for men, but were advised that there is a greater need for women in this area. There are four residential rehabilitation facilities, with accommodation for only 30 women total, in the state.

"The truth is that the city of Rockland alone, I think, has more than 30 women that could benefit from a residential rehabilitation program if it were available right now," Patterson said.

The area has several support systems in place including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Nar-Anon (family and friends of addicts).

"The meetings are just mobbed," said Ahlstrand. "And just think of how many people aren't going to those meetings that actually need it."

A study revealed that five people are affected by the behaviors of one person with addiction issues, and seven in 10 people leave recovery programs on terms less than favorable. "There's a ripple effect," Ahlstrand said.

"There are many facilities in other states," said Patterson. There is even a website findrecoveryhousing.com that provides a great deal of information. He said they combed through a lot of the information online to help them come up with their mission statement, house rules and guest agreement forms they designed specifically for Virginia House.

Neither Ahlstrand nor Patterson have any medical qualification or licensing in the area of rehabilitation. It is not required as the residence is zoned private and they do not provide in-house clinical services.

"We have a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services that states they approve of what we are doing," said Patterson.

The phrase "somebody has got to do something" kept replaying through their heads and that sparked the couple to start digging into what they needed to do to set the ball in motion. The house was appropriately named Virginia as a memorial to a cousin Ahlstrand had who suffered from a disability of a different kind, and upon her death the inheritance went toward the cause.

The house is funded privately by the couple, whose church in Broad Cove has adopted the Virginia House and donates paper goods and like products.

The residents pay $130 a week, which gets them a shared room and helps cover house expenses. They are responsible for their own food.

"We operate in the red most of the time," said Ahlstrand, who said, "we are not in this to make money."

Virginia House is looking for sponsor-type people who want to make donations, or provide scholarships for people who otherwise would be unable to benefit from the recovery needed because of financial reasons. Once it is more established, they may seek non-profit status. Eventually the couple hopes to have a residence where women can live together in a sober environment and support one another without a live-in manager.

"We need to get more graphic with people at a younger age," she said. The couple expected that their residents would be much younger, but realize that it takes time for someone to admit they have a problem.

"We are not saving peoples' lives, we're giving them a place to save their own lives," said Ahlstrand. "Where is it going to end?"

"You'd think people would be chomping at the bit for places of recovery," said Ahlstrand as she pointed out several articles in a local newspaper relative to drugs and alcohol being involved.

Ahlstrand has 35 years experience in business and owned a court reporting firm in California. She is originally from Connecticut. Patterson is a part-time lawyer and was a real estate broker in Pennsylvania. He has lived in Maine for the past 30 years.

For more information, call 593-8008 or 624-1975 or email virginiahousemaine@gmail.com.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or by email at bbirmingham@courierpublicationsllc.com.