Deacon Richard “Buzzy” Gaiennie, chief executive of the substance abuse programs at Bridge House and himself a recovering alcoholic, died Aug. 13 after an illness.
Deacon Gaiennie was ordained in 1987 by Archbishop Philip Hannan and served in the ministry at St. Stephen Church and then Our Lady of the Rosary Church. He has been the executive director of Bridge House since 1984.
He is survived by his wife Barbara Brown, his son Bill Gaiennie, and daughters Michele Gaiennie and Dana G. Arnold.
Funeral services are as follows: Thursday, Aug. 18, visitation 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Mass of Christian Burial 1:30 p.m., St. Stephen Church (Good Shepherd Parish), 1025 Napoleon Ave.
(Here is a Clarion Herald column by Peter Finney Jr. from May 10, 2010, that speaks of the life-changing work in which Deacon Gaiennie was engaged.)
If ever a building’s purpose is manifested by its architecture, the new four-story Bridge House at 4150 Earhart Blvd. – a place of healing and recovery for those addicted to drugs and alcohol – tells the world with its lofty elevation that it is firmly planted to withstand life’s storms.
Like so much post-Katrina construction in New Orleans, the “second” floor is actually the first working floor, 18 feet above the ground. That’s good thinking, because in 2005, when Lake Pontchartrain came rushing down Bayou Earhart and the “new” Bridge House existed only in Deacon Buzzy Gaiennie’s imagination, high tide reached nine feet.
Deeper meaning always has captured the imagination of Deacon Gaiennie, who in 1984 was hired to take over as chief executive officer of Bridge House at 1160 Camp St. Back then he was the only paid employee, and his improbable mission was to revive a faltering program that was sup- posed to help men enslaved by drugs and alcohol gain their freedom. There was only one problem – about 40 percent or more of “Which is one of the reasons I was hired, because the program wasn’t working,” Deacon Gaiennie said.
The Bridge House that Deacon Gaiennie walked into on his first day of work was the former Briede Funeral Home, an irony not lost on a man who himself is a recovering alcoholic.
“In years past, people would come to that building at the end of life,” Deacon Gaiennie said. “Today, they come to find and begin a new life in recovery and sobriety.”
The new Bridge House – about 60 percent of its $10 million cost has been paid for – can provide more than 100 residential beds for an addicted population that has exploded since Katrina. On a single day recently, Mark Saucier, who is in charge of intake, received 35 separate calls from families with nowhere else to turn.
“We don’t have to go out and look for clients,” Saucier said. “We get more than enough calls.”
Mental health care in New Orleans after Katrina is fragile at best. University Hospital has 18 beds for people who can’t afford the $4,000 to $5,000 for an average five-day stint in a private detoxification unit. The state closed the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, eliminating 100 mental health beds. So, at a time when the Katrina time bomb is exploding – lost jobs leading to lost homes and lost relationships, leading to heavy drinking – the city is ill-prepared to offer places of hope.
“Katrina was a disaster on many levels,” Saucier said. “The impact of Katrina is going to linger for years and years. Recently a study was done on people who were in the service. The average serviceman does not come in for psychological help or counseling until approximately 10 years after he gets out of the service.
“This is just my supposition, but I think the same thing would apply in the case of people who were traumatized by the hurricane. There are quite a few people who are just now coming out of the woodwork who started drinking and using drugs after Katrina and suddenly realized this is not a normal way of life and that their life is out of control.”
Meticulous records kept by Bridge House show that for those who complete their intensive work therapy program – the average stay is 134 days – 70 percent have remained sober three years later.
The opening of the new Bridge House as a men’s residential facility will allow Deacon Gaiennie to expand the addiction recovery program for women to a total of 71 beds at Grace House. The new Bridge House is home to 84 men, with a capacity of 104. Another 12 men live in the third phase of the program – an outside work regimen in which they use the therapy and work skills they have gained at Bridge House to hold down a real job.
More than 100 people are on the waiting list to enter the men’s and women’s programs, but they can start their therapy during the day even if a bed is not available.
“When we get everything up and running, we’ll have about 239 people involved in recovery, all the way from outpatient to extended care,” Deacon Gaiennie said. “I’m not short on dreams, but never in a million years did I dream we’d have 239 people involved in recovery.
“The greatest meaning in my life – the greatest purpose in my life – is that God has somehow seen fit to place me in this position. I’m extremely grateful for that. There are not many people who get to live out their dreams.”
Godly dreams don’t come any better: Dead men, coming to life, inside a funeral home.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.