A special anniversary occurs in Northbrook

When Nick Pappas woke up on Feb. 28, 2017, he discovered he was at Highland Park Hospital with no idea how he'd gotten there.

But he did have a plan.

"I told everyone that I wanted to get sober," he said.

Now 22, Pappas has remained on that path. He celebrated four years of sobriety on March 2 at Providence Farm in Northbrook, an extended care home for 18- to 30-year-old men who have completed treatment for substance use disorders. He was its first resident.

Providence Farm also will be celebrating its fourth anniversary after its founding on Aug. 1, 2017. Founder and director Stephanie Zwilling, a Northfield-based therapist and social worker, purchased it on May 1 of that year.

The third of Glencoe residents Deke and Julie Pappas' four children, Nick said he was "a hot mess" in the years leading up to what he called his spiritual awakening.

"I had nothing really going for me. I was on the verge of death virtually every day, very much ready to die," he said.

"It's surreal to see where I've come from, where I was four years ago, so close to dying and so unhappy and so at peace with the idea of dying - like, it didn't scare me.

"I'd just grown used to the idea that this is my life - I'm never going to stop abusing drugs and alcohol - that dying almost seemed like a release at that point, which I know is so scary to hear now and so different from my outlook.

"I love, love, love the life that I lead," he said.

Pappas wasn't just the first resident of Providence Farm, 1620 Sunset Ridge Road. He helped paint the Tudor-style farm house and attended municipal meetings before the Northbrook board of trustees on March 14, 2017, amended zoning code to allow for a transitional service facility for six or more occupants.

"He came to the zoning meetings, he came to an educational meeting we had at the library, he helped in painting the house. He kind of helped us create Providence Farm," said Zwilling, whose husband, Penn Phillips, teaches math at Glenbrook North.

Providence Farm currently houses 10 men, with another 15 in nearby "step-down apartments" added in January 2020. There is a constant waitlist, Zwilling said. Treatment for Providence Farm residents is performed at Zwilling's firm in Northfield, Transcend Counseling Associates.

Providence Farm's six-bedroom, six-bathroom house sits on 2.36 acres that includes a large backyard, garden, barn and pond. There also is a director of residence life, the director's assistant and two resident mentors, Zwilling said.

Village approval was contested. Citizens contributed comments both sympathetic to Providence Farm and the young men it would serve, and against it. Those opposed it mainly on grounds of being overcrowded, adding traffic, bringing a business into a residential area and the potential for crime.

"When we were in the city meetings there was a complaint of bringing dangerous people to the area," Pappas said.

"I'm that dangerous kid," he said, then modified that statement: "I'm that kid that desperately needs that house to open."

Open it did, with current Northbrook trustees such as Muriel Collison and Kathryn Ciesla championing the cause.

"They've become an integral part of our community, and Northbrook is lucky to have this facility in our town," said Village President Sandy Frum, who congratulated Providence Farm on its upcoming fourth anniversary.

Nick Pappas is one of its success stories. He keeps in touch with residents there, particularly with Zwilling, whom he called "like a second mother to me."

He said his history of alcohol and drug abuse began the summer before entering eighth grade at Central School in Glencoe, and "ramped up" his freshman year at New Trier High School. Extremely candid, he blames only gnawing insecurities felt by many people.

"I think there's always been a hole in my heart, of the feeling 'I'm different, no one understands me.' I feel like an outsider, I don't fit in," Pappas said. "Just this uncomfortability in my own skin is probably the best way to describe it."

Though he'd previously undergone treatment both in and out of state, over eight months at Providence Farm he saw he was not the only 18-year-old seeking what he called "juvenile fun" in the form of self-medication.

In the Providence Farm environment, and since, Pappas connected with peers, mentors and employers. With continued treatment, including attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings - his four-year anniversary was celebrated at Providence's weekly Tuesday dinner, followed by a meeting - he's remained sober.

"If I didn't have the loving support of my family I would not be sober today," he said.

"My mom always told me it takes a village to raise a child. Providence Farm has shown me that this is truthful and accurate."

From his Northbrook apartment Pappas admitted there are days he doesn't feel like going to bed, or getting up for that matter. Yet, he does get up, at an unruly 2 a.m. to go to work at Panama Banana, owned by his father, in the Chicago International Produce Market on the South Side.

He's got a girlfriend with whom he can now share feelings safely, without creating a downward spiral.

"I can see a value of my life in this world, which is so different," Pappas said.

"I felt like I had no purpose or value, and then I was thrown into this environment where people were telling me to keep going, keep pushing, keep working, you will have a life beyond your wildest dreams. And that urge, that obsession over drinking will subside.

"And I'm living proof. Those promises made to me in early sobriety, they came true," he said.

  Providence Farm founder Stephanie Zwilling is shown with the addiction treatment center's first client, Nick Pappas, now four years sober. Joe Lewnard/
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