MARIETTA — It was a ‘speedball’ – a lethal mix of heroin and cocaine — that killed 20-year-old Davis Owen in a Marietta strip mall parking lot on a near-freezing March night five years ago.
Though Michael and Missy Owen’s grief from the loss of their son to drugs is still raw, “God has made us stronger and able to move forward,” she said, fueling the couple’s passion to do something about the rising tide of opioid addiction that is now a national crisis.
What emerged was the The Zone in Marietta — an oasis of hope, support and social connections for those struggling to be free of what’s been called “The Evil Beast.”
Sales of gently used furniture, shoes and clothing in The Zone’s thrift stores play a vital part in the couple’s mission: to prevent more addiction-related deaths in the Atlanta area and beyond.
“It’s our way of honoring him by helping others who are in recovery stay in recovery,” said Missy Owen, executive director of the Davis Direction Foundation, which oversees The Zone’s growing presence in Marietta.
The nonprofit foundation, named for her late son, is governed and led by people in recovery, their family members, friends and allies.
“Our goal is to be an oasis of support and community for anyone who finds themselves in that scary place of addiction, whether to prescription pain killers, alcohol or street drugs,” she said.
Meeting the ‘Need to Talk’
When their son died, Missy Owen said she and her husband began researching to find out what God wanted them to do.
“We knew there was a calling. We learned that nine out of 10 people coming out of rehabilitation or incarceration would go back out and use again. There was no such thing as ‘after-care’ in the county, and that was a huge service gap that was not being addressed.”
There were meetings and places someone in recovery could go — if they were open when they were needed, she said.
“There are psychologists and intensive outpatient care places, but there was no place to go where you could connect with others at the exact time you needed,” she said. “Someone in recovery needs access to a place that is safe and sober, where you could just talk to somebody else who had been in the throes of addiction, and found their way into recovery. Social connection is the most important thing. People needed access to that when they needed it, not when there was a meeting at a clubhouse a few nights a week.”
Owen said at The Zone, folks can come in and catch a meeting any day of the week.
“You can get a meal, get on the computer, reach out to friends and family, get coffee, talk to people, play ping-pong, pool, work out, play video games and do art or music. Just about anything you could do outside if you weren’t in recovery, you can do here, but in a safe place,” she said. “We fight addiction and fuel recovery.”
The Zone is housed in a two-story brick building near Marietta’s National Cemetery with a kitchen, meeting rooms, a workout studio filled with treadmills, weightlifting and professional exercise equipment, a music studio, computer room, space for yoga and Bible study and a cafe. It is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
A 3,000-square-foot thrift shop with donated clothing, shoes and home furnishing items fills the bottom level. A second shop called “Re-Zoned Thrift Boutique” recently opened in an adjacent building and features “the best of the best in used home decor,” Michael Owen said.
“Every dollar that comes from thrift store sales goes toward keeping The Zone’s doors open to anyone who needs help,” he said.
‘It’s a Disease’
All of The Zone’s services, including support groups facilitated by people in recovery are provided at no cost. Several staff members are trained recovery specialists. The Zone’s team focuses on awareness, education, prevention, recovery and harm reduction. Support group meetings are held numerous times each day throughout the week for those in recovery as well as family members.
“The person in recovery begins to realize that their family was supporting them all along, and families begin to view addiction as a disease. They see that their loved one wasn’t doing it to hurt anyone. Perspectives and opinions change and families get stronger,” Missy Owen said.
The Zone’s name came about from her husband’s experience of coaching youth baseball. Before each game, he always told his players to ‘get in the zone’ and focus,” she said. “It’s the same with recovery. You need to stay focused to win.”
She wants to make heroin and substance use disorder “public conversations” in order to make a difference.
“Heroin causes one of the most severe forms of addiction. The stigma of a heroin addict and rehabilitation for them is outdated and needs to be changed,” she said.
Addiction can tear a family apart, even if the family is strong, added Michael Owen.
“We want to help people learn through our mistakes because we were amateurs. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
For the average family, he said opioid addiction is a disease that can’t be seen or measured.
‘Be a Hero’
Michael Owen said the stigma surrounding addiction is that it is a moral lifestyle choice.
“There’s a lot of unforgiveness and that’s hard to overcome,” he said. “The world of addiction is one they didn’t want to be a part of. If you haven’t lived through something like this, and you’re not aware of what that person is dealing with as far as this disease, it can cause a downward spiral for both the family and the addict.”
Michael Owen left a Fortune 500 career in 2018 to help his wife manage The Zone’s operations.
“You’re so busy chasing your child, wanting to know where they are, who they’re with, where they’ve been, looking at bank accounts — you forget to invest in education to know how to help,” Missy Owen said. “You just want to know, are they safe? Are they alive? Are they in a good place or a bad place? You feel like you don’t have time to research and learn how to help.”
Michael Owen said that’s the beauty of what this organization provides.
“The organization is about looking forward, not looking into the rear view mirror. That’s what a lot of families do, but it doesn’t help anybody,” Michael said.
Families sometimes need a perspective from someone not in that mix of emotions and upbringing, to take a step back and help them make good decisions, he said.
“My son wrote a letter just before we placed him in rehab. His last sentence said, ‘Dad, you’re a hero to me.’ I don’t have my son now. He died six weeks after leaving rehab. But you may be able to save or help your family member or friend and be a hero to them. I don’t know what that looks like for your family — whether it’s compassion, tough love, being sent away, maybe prison time. But somewhere in there you’ve got to learn to be a hero,” he said.
The Zone’s leaders and staff have the goal to enhance the quantity and quality of support available to people seeking long-term recovery from addiction, Missy Owen said.
“We focus on the solution rather than a particular service or model of care. We meet people where they are.”
While the foundation receives some financial help from state programs, the bulk of The Zone’s support comes from local businesses, churches, individual donors and civic organizations.
“Support from this community has been immense. Everybody knows someone
who’s been affected by addiction,” she said.
The Zone now serves as a model for similar operations in 12 other U.S. cities, thanks to the foundation’s replication materials that provide step-by-step guides. Each will be named “The Zone,” she said.
“Peer support is an evidenced-based approach to recovery that works exceedingly well. The national recidivism rate with opioid addiction — those who relapse and return to the criminal justice system again and again — is astronomical. We believe that after-care from rehabilitation or incarceration is essential for those in recovery to stay in recovery,” she said. “We miss Davis every day, but we celebrate in knowing he’s in heaven. He’s with God, and that gives our family comfort. I believe he would be very proud of what we’re doing.”