Troubling end to life of S.F. addiction expert

San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 25, 2003
http://www.sfgate.com/
Ulysses Torassa, Chronicle Health Writer

Relying on street smarts, charisma and strong convictions, Alfonso P. Acampora spent the last 30 years turning a small San Francisco group home called Walden House into a multimillion-dollar drug treatment organization with more than a dozen sites throughout California.

A product of the streets of the South Bronx, Acampora was a heroin dealer and user who did time in prison before coming West, where he turned his life around and became a nationally known advocate in the field of drug treatment.

Acampora, 61, of Oakland died Saturday at the Claremont Resort in Berkeley of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The state attorney general’s office had been investigating allegations that he had misused Walden House funds. Walden House spokesman Rick Rice said that Acampora was confident the accusations would be disproved, but that he nonetheless was exhibiting “a fair amount of strain.”

“I think he was feeling the pressure of any CEO when these kinds of allegations are leveled, particularly when he feels they are so false,” Rice said.

As president and chief executive of Walden House, Acampora oversaw a $54 million budget and 550 full-time employees. The agency serves about 3,000 people a day through a variety of programs in San Francisco and elsewhere in California using the “therapeutic community” model of substance abuse treatment and recovery, which provides a safe environment for addicts to come to terms with their lives.

“When he came to Walden House, we were basically a small group home,” said Brian Greenberg, a vice president at Walden House who worked with Acampora for 16 years. “Alfonso took it over and built it into the large behavioral health and human services agency that we are today. And he did it through political cajoling, warmth, persuasion and street smarts.”

SHOOTING HEROIN AT 15

Acampora was raised in an Italian neighborhood of the South Bronx and was part of an Italian gang that sold drugs. “They didn’t want us using it, but they wanted us to sell it, and that’s what I did,” he told The Chronicle in an interview published earlier this month. “By the time I was 15, I was shooting heroin. By the time I was 16 1/2, I was dealing heroin.”

After an 18-month stint in prison for burglary, Acampora came to California for the first time in 1963 and joined Synanon, a now-defunct organization dedicated to rehabilitating drug addicts. He stayed for three years but eventually returned to New York and got back into drugs.

A childhood friend, Delancey Street co-founder John Maher, told him about a new program he was starting in San Francisco. It also worked with ex-convicts and addicts to rebuild their lives through self-reliance. Acampora returned to California and became part of the Delancey Street community for a year.

Acampora joined Walden House in the late 1960s, and within a few years he was head of the organization.

A tall, heavyset man, Acampora cut a distinctive figure. He was adept at getting and holding people’s attention and communicating his passions. He inspired loyalty among those close to him.

A CHARISMATIC LEADER

“Alfonso was one of an increasingly few leaders in the community who are charismatic,” said Jonathan Vernick, executive director of Baker Places, a San Francisco nonprofit that runs residential mental health and substance abuse programs.

“Many of the people in treatment at Walden ended up working there. His management team remained loyal to him for many years, which is increasingly rare in community-based organizations. People stuck with Alfonso when they got to know him.”

Mimi Silbert, a co-founder of Delancey Street, said Acampora had managed to resist the burnout that claims so many people in the field of drug treatment. “It’s really painful, but he hung in there, leading this organization through endless growth and all the joys and pains of helping people turn their lives around,” she said.

Walden House now has several programs, including prison-based residential treatment with 1,700 beds in California. It runs two large residential treatment facilities in San Francisco with 100 beds each, the city’s only program for indigent adolescents, and a program that lets children stay with their mothers during treatment. The agency also has a large outpatient facility in the Mission.

WORKING TO SELF-RELIANCE

One of the key features of Walden House is its emphasis on work and self- reliance. Acampora also resisted the trend to segregate people by race, gender or medical condition when offering treatment.

“Unlike other programs, he believed that whether you’re gay or disabled or have HIV or you’re a woman or a man, that drug treatment should reflect the real world,” Greenberg said. “He didn’t balkanize programming.”

In 1987, Walden House became one of the few drug treatment programs to accept people with AIDS. It also broke tradition by allowing people to continue to use methadone while in treatment, Greenberg said.

Acampora was an early supporter of harm reduction, a fairly new concept in drug treatment that doesn’t insist on complete abstinence before it offers services to addicts. He also was quick to adjust Walden House programs in light of new research about what approaches work best, Greenberg said.

“Without having a cookie-cutter approach, he was a real innovator,” Greenberg said.

FRIEND OF MANY MAYORS

Acampora also advanced the agenda of Walden House through close contacts with important political figures. ”He’s been a friend of mayors from Moscone to Feinstein to Jordan to Agnos to Brown,” Greenberg said. “He was an uneducated person, but he was a power broker, in the classiest sense of the word.”

Greenberg and others at Walden House said Acampora had been in good spirits and making plans as usual when they saw him late last week. His death, he said, “was a total surprise.”

The Walden House board is meeting this week to choose an interim leader for the agency. Meanwhile, Greenberg said, the organization’s work will continue uninterrupted.

Acampora is survived by his wife, Christina, of Oakland; two daughters, Maria Stefano of Connecticut and Tina Acampora Vaughns of San Leandro; a son, Alfonso Acampora Jr. of Oakland; his mother, Irene Acampora of New York; a sister, Francesca Acampora of New York; and five grandsons.

The family is holding a private service this week. A public memorial service is planned, but details have not been announced.

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