Bridges of Iowa Offers Path to Freedom From Addiction
Private nonprofit drug-rehabilitation program with a Catholic connection changes lives.
After she violated probation on drug-trafficking charges in 2013, prosecutors wanted to send Aisha Ewald to prison for 25 years.
Instead, the judge sent her to Bridges of Iowa, a private nonprofit drug-rehabilitation program in a previously unused wing of the Polk County Jail in Des Moines, for a year.
While Bridges of Iowa helped her stop taking drugs, she said, it also taught her how to live.
“I lived this life of unstructured, self-induced chaos for so long, kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants living,” Ewald told the Register. “It’s just holding you accountable, to learn how to hold yourself accountable, to be responsible for your own actions.”
A Teenager’s Fateful Fall
Bridges of Iowa grew out of the experiences of Don Lamberti’s son Tony, who smoked a marijuana cigarette at a neighbor’s house when he was 14, developed a dependency, and as an adult was sent to jail on drug convictions.
Tony had a religious experience in prison that led to the end of his drug use. Later, in the prison library, Tony came across the autobiography of a former gangster who started a drug-rehabilitation program in Florida. Tony (who died in 2010 of a brain virus at age 49) encouraged his father to start something similar in Iowa.
Don could see the need. He also reflected on a friend of his from decades before who had struggled with alcohol and, like his son, ended up dying young. He sensed that God was calling him.
To get Bridges of Iowa going required about $6 million. Lamberti had the wherewithal to do it — as founder of Casey’s General Stores, a convenience-store company that, at this writing, has more than 2,000 stores in 16 states. But he didn’t have the cash at that time. For that, he needed to liquidate an asset.
Around that time, in early 2000, he got a letter in the mail informing him that an investment he had made in a blind trust some years before had unexpectedly matured early, thanks in part to the dot-com boom. Lamberti found a pattern in the figures.
“I put in 2.2 million. I gave $6 [million] to the program. And I still had 2.2 million,” Lamberti said. “Now, was he trying to get my attention again? Amazing.”
All told, Lamberti, now 85, has put tens of millions of dollars into Bridges of Iowa.
“I’ve found that the best thing for a person to do when you have a calling is to just say ‘Yes’ and get out of the way,” Lamberti said. “And, so far, it’s worked.”
What Do They Do?
Bridges of Iowa starts each client with a four-to-six-week high-intensity residential-treatment phase, during which clients get clinical therapy and attend classes on coping, building relationships, resolving conflicts, managing finances, dealing with trauma, dealing with anger, how to reconcile, how to accept both praise and criticism and building self-worth.
Then, residents spend about three to six months in a low-intensity setting, living at the facility but also leaving to go to work and for occasional furloughs. After that, during the first phase of the outpatient program, they live somewhere else with supervision from counselors from Bridges. That’s followed by an outpatient program in which clients are living at home but getting frequent follow-up.
Bridges’ associates also engage with the families of addicts, since family conflicts often have a lot to do with a person turning to drugs and alcohol.
“One of the things I love about Bridges is it’s not just about changing that individual’s life, it’s about changing a family culture,” said Steve Havemann, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Des Moines, which works with Bridges of Iowa on joint projects.
The Long Haul
Many drug-rehabilitation programs use similar methods. One thing that makes Bridges of Iowa unusual, though, is the length of the program. Many go about 30 days; some go for 60. But it’s rare to find a yearlong schedule.
“In those 30-day programs, I mean, they’re barely coming out of their fog,” said Pat Coughlin, chief executive officer of Bridges of Iowa, who has worked for the organization in some capacity since 2005. “That’s where the long-term piece is really critical to people changing.”
A common problem for recovering drug addicts is dealing with triggering events: winter blues, summer highs, Christmas and New Year’s, the anniversary of the death of a loved one. That makes a yearlong program particularly valuable.
“Because it is long term, people are experiencing every season: seasonal and occasion-driven types of triggers. The fact that this is a long-term program gets you through all of these periods that you might find challenging,” said Jamie Buelt, who handles public relations for Bridges and whose son graduated from the program. “And because it is a long-term program, it gives you tools that you cannot possibly learn in 30 days.”
Faith and Addiction
Bridges of Iowa is not a Catholic program. But it has Catholic influences. Lamberti and his wife, Charlene, are lifelong Catholics with close connections to the Church. Many of the people who work at Bridges are Catholics. During the first dozen years, all residents were given a faith-based approach to dealing with addiction, including strong encouragement to go to church.
In 2012, Polk County officials asked Bridges of Iowa to become a preferred destination for court-ordered drug diversion. But to accept it, county officials said, Bridges had to offer a non-faith-based option for residents, because judges in government courts could not order a defendant to attend a purely faith-based program.
After much soul searching, Bridges officials decided to do it without losing its identity. The faith-based approach and the non-faith-based approach meet in different rooms.
“We don’t jam religion down anybody’s throat. We really do want people to choose that path, not force them down it,” Coughlin said. “We can still expose them to it, in subtler ways.”
The faith-based approach seems to work better, he said.
“They start to figure out, I think, that they have to cut ties with the influencers that got them where they are,” said Jeff Lamberti, a son of the founder and the current chairman of the board of directors. “And I think a lot of them find out that having that void of no religion is a problem. So they have a curiosity. And as they navigate it themselves, it seems to become pretty powerful for them.”
Coughlin said he often sees residents moving from the non-faith-based track to the faith-based track.
“It seems like the more anti-God they are when they come in, the more likely they are to come over to the other room. I think that’s just how God works,” Coughlin said.
Success in drug rehabilitation isn’t easy to quantify.
Thirty-day programs typically count their success rate by the number of people who complete the program. But that doesn’t account for relapses afterward. Drug-rehab programs often lose touch with their former clients unless they end up back in their facility.
At Bridges of Iowa, in 2022, about 79% completed the high-intensity residential program, according to the organization’s statistics. About 61% of those completed the low-intensity residential program. About 74% of those completed the outpatient program with housing. And about 59% of those completed the outpatient program living away from the facility.
After someone graduates, Bridges of Iowa follows up with calls and email messages for at least a year. Some graduates get a job with Bridges, helping people whose struggles they can identify with.
County officials admire the program and note that it saves long-term costs in incarceration and unproductive living.
“With them getting the help they’re getting at Bridges, it saves everybody money — except for Don Lamberti,” said Kevin Schneider, sheriff of Polk County, which includes the city of Des Moines.
The problem is: It’s expensive up front.
Bridges of Iowa has a yearly budget of roughly $4 million. About 75% of the money comes from Medicaid, about 20% from Polk County, about 5% from grants and individual donations.
At any one time, Bridges has about 130 people in the program, of whom about 80 to 85 are living at the facility. That isn’t nearly enough to deal with the drug problem in central Iowa, though, Jeff Lamberti told the Register.
“We think we now have enough of a track record after 20-plus years that what we do pretty much works,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of providers are kind of locked into a platform that they can get funding for. I think more people would offer long term if there were in fact a funding stream that would pay for it.”
From Chaos to Solid Family
Ewald, who is now president of the Bridges alumni, told the Register she grew up in a single-mother home where she experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse and chaos. She first started drinking vodka-and-orange juice at age 11, added marijuana at 13, followed by Xanax, Percocet and other pills, and then, at 18, started taking cocaine and methamphetamine.
She is now 40, married, works as a director of operations for an electrical company, and is raising a 15-year-old son. She has three other children in their 20s and a 1-year-old granddaughter.
Asked what her life would be like without Bridges of Iowa, she said she doesn’t think about that. Instead, she thinks about gratitude.
“When I first got there, I was like, ‘This is a joke. What can this do for me?’” Ewald said. “And I want people to see it’s not just a ploy — it works. And it can start you on a path to living your life differently from what you’ve ever known. It’s an opportunity to change.”