Making a bar to stay clean and sober

Some people don't understand the concept of a "sober bar" like The Other Side, a first-of-its-kind spot in the Midwest that's set to open April 27 in Crystal Lake.

"They say, 'You're going to open a bar without booze? What's the point?'" said Chris Reed, 22, of Algonquin, president of the nonprofit group behind the project, New Directions Addiction Recovery Services.

"If you're choosing a sober lifestyle, this will be a healthy atmosphere. It's an important place for people in recovery," Reed says.

He knows just how important. Reed, like many of the New Directions board members, is a former drug addict.

For people in recovery, they say the suburbs can be an isolating place with few options for entertainment. Bars aren't good, Reed says, because alcohol and drug addiction are so similar.

"You can only go to the movie theater and bowling alley so many times," said Reed, who's been clean for three years after a heroin addiction. "We're still young, and we want to hang out. You can't hang out with 40 people at your house."

The Other Side aims to unify the suburbs' sober community and change the stigma of sober living. The only difference between The Other Side and a regular bar will be that the strongest thing you can order is an energy drink.

"There's a lot of work that goes into staying sober," said Steve Staley of Lake in the Hills, a New Directions board member who overcame a heroin addiction. "There's a whole recovery community out there who wants and needs a place like this."

The Other Side is not a business - everyone involved is keeping a day job, and it's only open four nights a week, Thursdays through Sundays. Any money raised will fund drug education and treatment initiatives by their nonprofit and others, including Wake the Nation, a Facebook-based drug awareness group led by New Directions board member Cassandra Wingert, 23, of Western Springs.

"There's a bigger picture here," Reed said. "We're using this (bar) to show we're serious, and we're going to do a good job with this."

Falling somewhere between "nightclub" and "rec center," The Other Side is opening in the warehouse loft space behind Reed's construction company on Berkshire Drive. It has room for people to relax on couches, watch TV, play pool or video games, listen to live bands, or dance along with a disc jockey. There will be security, and people will be carded at the door to make sure they're at least 18 years old - and sober.

Extensive work was done to bring the space into compliance with city codes, including a $7,000 heating and air conditioning system, and it was all done and paid for by volunteers and friends.

When word got around about the bar, they had so many volunteers, they could hardly find work for all of them. One day, a bus from an Elgin rehab center came with 30 recovering addicts, and they cleaned the place from floor to ceiling.

The idea for The Other Side was born last summer, after the funeral of a 21-year-old friend who died of a heroin overdose. Reed and his friends were hanging out in his empty warehouse, a place where they often congregated while going through recovery. The space only had a few folding chairs and a boom box, at first, but soon they brought in a card table and some better furniture. The number of friends joining the get-togethers steadily grew.

One night, Staley's band played in the warehouse, and more than 200 people showed up.

"That's when the city came in and said, 'Hey, we're going to have to do this in a different way,'" Reed said.

So they did. Reed suggested they convert the space into a sober bar like one he had visited in Los Angeles. Everyone was immediately on board with the concept. People offered up their time, labor and money. Several local businesses contributed, too.

"This materialized out of a few guys going, hey, got $1?" joked board member Aaron Cutler of Crystal Lake. "The support was unbelievable."

The Other Side's creators hope their bar will help people in various stages of recovery by providing them a place to go, and a place to be with others who understand the struggle of addiction.

The New Directions board members - Reed, Staley, Wingert, Cutler, Evan McLean of Crystal Lake, Michael Ledvora of Crystal Lake, Joe Bongiovanni of Algonquin, Adam Reed of Algonquin (Chris's little brother) and Bobby Gattone of Algonquin - say, between them, they know more than 100 people who have died of drug overdoses these past few years, most of them from the suburbs.

Large, framed photographs of three of those people hang on the bar's wall. It helps keep board members focused on their mission, and keeps their friends there in spirit.

"Hopefully, we don't have to add any more photos to the wall," Staley said.

  Steve Staley of Lake in the Hills hopes that The Other Side never has to put up another photo of a friend who died of a drug overdose. John Starks/
  Chris Reed, 22, of Algonquin, is one of several recovering drug addicts who are opening a sober bar in Crystal Lake called The Other Side. It’s the first bar of its kind in the Midwest. John Starks/
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