Addiction in the service industry addressed by SA support group

Support group Heard helps with addiction, substance abuse, mental health

By Courtney Friedman - VJ, Reporter, Robert Samarron - Photojournalist

SAN ANTONIO - They serve the millions of people living and visiting San Antonio every year, but who is taking care of those in the service industry?

Addiction and substance abuse is a problem many face in the line of work.

Waiters, cooks and bartenders are among the top five professions seeing growth in the San Antonio-New Braunfels area, according to labor market analysts at EMSI.

The analysis also shows 25% of San Antonio's workforce is in the service or food and beverage industry.

People within that industry know substance abuse is prevalent, but locals say they haven't had much of an outlet until about a year ago, when a nonprofit started a support group called Heard, just for people in the industry.

KSAT got to sit in on one of the meetings, where members opened up about their addiction.

"From my experience, there's no such thing as one drink. There's no such thing as one line, there's no such thing as one hit. For me, I've lost control of the pause button, let alone the stop button, and there's no rewind button," one member said.

It was a raw, honest conversation among people whose jobs bind them together like a family.

In the meeting, a member said, "It started with bartending. It was, like, we need a bartender who can be fast. If you're struggling with being quick and efficient ... you have a substance that's able to step in," she said.

Joel Rivas is the CEO of the Saint City Culinary Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the Heard group.

Rivas joined the service industry at 17 and got swept away by the fast, loud, social environment of a workplace he says is like no other.

"If you're an accountant, you couldn't drink at your desk and your boss be fine with it and drink along with you," he said.

For him, recreation became abuse.

"Drugs, I didn't have an off switch for that, so over the course of a few years just completely derailed," he said.

Now clean for 23 years, Rivas created Heard to give back to an industry that still means the world to him.

"We’re not here looking to sober up the industry. We want people in the industry to restore some sort of balance to their life. Balance for some is complete sobriety, balance for some is going into recovery, balance for some is just having a support group that helps them come back to a baseline," Rivas said.

Heard is one of the first support groups of its kind in the nation.

It is "an addiction recovery, sobriety and mental health support program and we're all focused on the food and beverage industry," he said.

San Antonio bar owner Jaret Pena said the city is built on the service industry.

"We make up a large part of the market and yet there's very little attention given to the downfalls and the pitfalls of being in this industry," he said.

Sometimes, his bartenders at Still Golden on Broadway leave work when the sun is rising.

"On a busy night, 5:30," Pena said.

It's part of the job, but there's never been an outlet as specific as Heard.

"It's super supportive," Pena said. "Just a discussion, no religion brought up. There's financial support that we're doing events here at Still Golden."

There is a nonalcoholic drink on the general menu at Still Golden. Buy that, or buy any of the drinks from the special menu online, and all of the proceeds will go to the Heard group.

That gives the public the ability to serve those who typically serve them.

The meetings are on the second floor of Brick in the Blue Star at 6 p.m. Mondays.

Everyone from any job in the service industry is welcome.

Tuesday, Rivas and his team launched Heard in Austin, and will soon launch in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Denver and Los Angeles.

It's a huge undertaking, considering the organization runs completely on volunteerism. Anyone interested in volunteering can visit the nonprofit's website.

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