Orange County

UNC Horizons substance-abuse treatment program opens base in Carrboro

A child plays with a toy phone at Wednesday’s grand opening of UNC Horizons.
A child plays with a toy phone at Wednesday’s grand opening of UNC Horizons. The Herald-Sun

It takes a lot these days to bring Republicans and Democrats together, but UNC-Chapel Hill’s medical program managed it Wednesday with the formal opening of a new treatment center for women who have substance-abuse problems.

The new North Greensboro Street facility will host the UNC Horizons, a 24-year-old program for “pregnant [or] parenting women” and their children. It includes a full day care, allowing clients the time and space to attend to their medical and employment needs.

Gov. Roy Cooper and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., shared the stage with Chancellor Carol Folt, all agreeing that the program’s founder, Dr. John Thorp, and its staff have built a model treatment program.

For his part, Thorp said he and his colleagues hope to replicate it across the state, the country and eventually the globe.

“This is not a disease like cancer or pre-term birth that needs the discovery of a miracle cure to see substantive gains occur,” said Thorp, an obstetrician in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “Progress is only a matter of will and resolve. [Addiction] at its core is a disease of despair.”

The treatment center occupies about half of a 20,000-square foot building in Carrboro’s Shelton Station development. UNC has put about $3 million into the project, launching it via a outside grant that covers a third of the bill and an in-house loan from its own foundation.

The foundation loan allowed officials to jump-start construction as they continue to raise money for the project, said Gordon Merklein, associate vice chancellor for real estate operations. He added that UNC has ownership of Horizons’ space via a condominium arrangement.

Shelton Station, meanwhile, survived early controversy to gain a foothold on North Greensboro Street. The development cleared the town’s Board of Aldermen by a narrow 4-3 vote in 2012.

One of the development’s then-supporters, Mayor Lydia Lavelle, said backers had to address concerns that included such matters as traffic, noise and workforce housing. She also said she’d heard “early on” that the Horizons program was “one of the groups being considered” as prospective tenant.

The move marks a return to Carrboro for Horizons, as it had once used space downtown near the Armadillo Grill, said Lavelle, an N.C. Central University law professor.

“We’re happy to welcome this group back to Carrboro,” she said. “It fit right in with our spirit and our town.”

Thorp, meanwhile, said the program’s growth owes much to the ethos on campus of giving “social entrepreneurs” on the faculty “a protected place to implant and develop” their ideas.

For their part, Cooper and Burr said Horizons fills a critical need, given the human and economic damage various forms of addiction are causing in rural North Carolina and some urban areas where jobs are in short supply.

Burr sees it as “one of the most innovative design models” around.

“You look around the country and you see [other treatment] programs, all these programs separate individuals from their families,” he said. “This one is focused on keeping the family together.”

Cooper, a Democrat who took office in January, added that “substance abuse and addiction can do as much as anything” to undermine people’s hopes of becoming educated, healthy and prosperous.

“My brother’s a District Court judge,” Cooper said, alluding to his brother Pell Cooper, who presides in three-county area of eastern North Carolina. “He sees it on almost a daily basis. Addiction causes domestic violence, causes financial strife, causes child neglect.”

But UNC Horizons is a promising counter, for being able to draw on “the amazing tools of our state universities,” he said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg