The 82-year-old knows his white hair and wrinkles make him look like a grandpa to juveniles and young drug offenders.
But Chuck Olson happily admits that sometimes his appearance is exactly why it’s easy for him to build a relationship with those he’s trying to help.
“Oh yes,” Olson said. “I really do believe that, and that’s because most of the people I meet really do cherish their grandparents.”
That relationship is apparent when he walks through the Jackson County Jail in Brownstown.
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“Chuck, Chuck!” some inmates will yell.
Men and women, dressed in jail jumpsuits, will press against the security glass just to say a few words to him. He treats them just like a friend on the street, checking up on them.
Some he has met through the jail’s Alcoholics Anonymous program. Others he has met through his work as an addictions counselor.
Either way, Olson understands what many of them are going through — he once lost his job, his marriage and his self-worth to alcohol.
But today, after 26 years of sobriety and more than 7,000 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings attended, the recovering alcoholic is willing to help those who are ready to make a change in their life, even if they’re behind bars.
“By the grace of God, I could be the one sitting in there,” Olson said.
‘It becomes a habit’
Olson was born in Detroit and had his first drink when he was 17 when he sipped some beer.
“I hated it,” said Olson, who said alcoholism does not run in his family.
He attended Cornell College in Iowa and once vowed never to drink again after a night full of booze and fun.
But that wouldn’t be the case.
When he went to work for a financial company in Illinois, he gradually started to drink more.
Bottles of alcohol were a thing to bring to gatherings with friends, and he began daily drinking when he was about 35, Olson said.
“It got to the point where we would go to a party and bring booze, and I may be in the kitchen afterward drinking out of other people’s glasses,” he said.
At that time, he had a wife and children.
He recalls sitting outside his house and watching for the bedroom light to turn off when his wife would go to asleep. He said he would then do some “serious drinking” by himself.
“It starts out as a lot of fun, and then it becomes a habit,” he said. “We don’t drink to feel good. We drink to not feel bad.”
‘The turning point’
Flash forward about 20 years, and Olson held a good job working in the circulation department at The Indianapolis Star.
After attending two treatment centers, he still was unable to end his addiction. He said that’s because he always had a plan in the back of his mind to somehow continue the drinking, even if it was just once a week.
“I reached a point where I was out of control and that’s all I wanted to do,” Olson said.
One day, his boss told him he had to quit drinking or lose his job.
“In my infinite wisdom, I said, ‘I quit,'” Olson said. “That was really the turning point.”
Olson soon found himself at an apartment drinking for about six weeks straight, even getting arrested at one point for driving under the influence.
After he was kicked out of the apartment and then a motel, he had nowhere to go and recalls sitting in front of a bush with his half-gallon of vodka at 56 years old.
One of the 12 steps used in Alcoholics Anonymous came to mind.
“You’re powerless over alcohol,” he said he thought and realized it was true.
Olson also had another thought that was simple yet proved worthwhile.
“You don’t have to drink to be happy,” he said.
At that moment, he believed it, surrendered and said he didn’t want to drink anymore.
Even though he had no money and had lost basically everything, he somehow reached into his pocket and found a quarter. He used it to make a phone call to his daughter.
“I would have died there (at the apartment), but I got rescued,” he said, referring to his spiritual awakening. “Sometimes God works through other people, even the motel worker who kicked me out and the police.”
Olson’s keys now have a key chain with a quarter, a symbolic reference to the day he became sober.
Re-creating his life
Olson began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a day. He started to re-create his life, as he put it, and focused fully on his recovery.
He has never had a relapse, something he credits to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.
“If you work the program, you won’t relapse,” he said. “Before, I thought I was in recovery, but I wasn’t because I kept thinking about when I was going to drink. If you’re playing around and you’re on the outside, it won’t work.”
Olson eventually began his work with young adults at a teenage center for substance abuse. After all, working with kids is a passion he has always had — he has worked with kids at the YMCA, with the young paper carriers at The Indianapolis Star and even with his own kids through hockey and youth baseball.
He once worked at a work-release program and eventually became a certified substance abuse counselor. Eventually, he took a break from working in treatment and left Indianapolis to work at a small newspaper in northern Indiana.
In 1999, he came to Seymour and worked at The Tribune before he decided to start working with emotionally challenged kids in the area. He returned to counseling and treatment when he began working at Polarity Counseling in Seymour, operated by Brenda and Eric Turner.
For about six years, he helped others regain their lives from substance abuse.
One of those was Mary Jo Gallion of Seymour.
Olson was one of her counselors at Polarity when she was in intensive outpatient therapy trying to overcome drugs and alcohol. She has been sober for nine years.
“Chuck taught me about my disease and taught me a new way to live,” the 52-year-old said.
Gallion said Olson will do anything to help those in recovery, including the help she and her husband, who also relied on Olson to become sober, received.
“I’ve just seen him give all of himself,” Gallion said. “If Chuck knew or felt God wanted him to do a certain thing, he would go to the end of the Earth to do that.”
Today, Gallion and Olson remain close friends. She even assists him with helping others become sober.
“I don’t think the recovering community in Seymour would be the same without him,” she said. “I love Chuck as if he were my own grandfather.”
‘Someday, they’ll get it’
When Olson was at Polarity, he also started to work at the Judge Robert Brown Jackson County Juvenile Home, a residential facility for troubled youths.
The Brownstown home accepts teen boys who have been removed from their homes because of family issues or who have been judged to be delinquent.
Today, he switches roles throughout the week, sometimes as counselor and other times as child care worker, spending the night shift with the boys, helping them to bed, waking them up for school and work and dealing with the tough part of runaways.
David Banks, the home’s assistant program director, has seen how Olson immerses himself in the program, often putting in the extra work for no pay.
Olson assists with drug, alcohol and trauma assessments with the kids and even takes the boys along with him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“All of them have obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and many have reactive attachment disorder, and they don’t really care about other people,” Olson said. “I try to be kind to them even when they’re breaking the rules.”
‘We give them the parenting’
Olson said the home tries to implement order and family using rules that must be followed with cleaning, homework and cooking. The program tries to create a new outlook on life.
“We give them the parenting they’ve never had,” he said. “We’re trying to teach them the things that families do. We try to deal with the trauma they’ve experienced so they can be strong enough to go out on their own.”
But while he tries to deal with their emotional issues, Olson also stands as a role model to the boys, teaching them responsibility and even using his own car to teach them how to drive.
“Chuck does it because he says, at his age, what can they do to him,” Banks said.
Recently, when his car was stolen by one of the juveniles for a short period of time, Olson said he wasn’t angry at the boy and made sure the boy knew that. He was more mad at the situation in which the boy grew up.
“They have lives unlike the one I had,” Olson said. “Their background is entirely different.”
He’s referring to how many of the boys grew up in homes and around families that were surrounded by poverty and crime, including substance abuse, theft and neglect.
Banks said drug and alcohol addiction is a significant issue in 90 percent of the cases at the house.
“You cannot understand these cases without understanding addiction and its chronic effect on every aspect of their lives,” Banks said.
Olson said the result is the kids don’t know anything about what parenting should be like.
“They’ve never had that model for them,” he said. “They really don’t even know what a real family looks like.”
To be happy, one must have love, self-esteem and a sense of belonging. These kids don’t have that, Olson said.
“How some of these kids manage, I don’t know,” he said.
Olson said many of the kids don’t want to go back home because there’s no support there. They also have trouble in school and tend to gravitate toward others like them to receive the feelings they are lacking, such as protection.
As challenging as it is to understand and care for the teens, Olson said, he truly enjoys working with that age because even if they don’t realize it yet, they have the tools to succeed.
“Many would prefer to not work with adolescents because they tend to relapse, and I expect them to,” he said. “They may not come around until they are 25 or 26, but someday, they will get it.”
Just recently, Olson said, a man he used to work with stopped by to talk about the progress he has made — he now has a job and a girlfriend.
But he admits, there are many failures in the position he holds, which isn’t easy to accept.
“Sometimes, I run into someone I can’t help,” he said. “But I do the best I can.”
Grateful for life
During the week, Olson also offers drug and alcohol education sessions. Throughout the year, he conducts outpatient treatment for first-time teen offenders and their parents. They are split into groups and counseled, which he said is effective because the family support is there.
For those struggling with addiction, he said, it’s all about attitude because not everyone is ready to take that step to get clean. Though he’s had no cravings since the day he gave up alcohol, he understands it can be difficult for others.
“They have to want to seek help,” he said. “Once they believe they can, that will eventually turn to faith.”
Reflecting on his life, Olson said, he wouldn’t change much except for the fact that he kept alcohol in his home and drank around his family. He helped raise eight kids and knows they were all impacted by his behavior, some of them more seriously than others.
Now as a grandfather and great-grandfather, he encourages other parents to keep it out of the house, too, to prevent future problems.
“Kids want to do what Mom and Dad do,” he said.
Despite the hardships, Olson said, he’s grateful for the day he began his habit with booze because the outcome has given him so much more.
“I’m so grateful I’m a recovering alcoholic because it’s opened up my life to all kinds of wonderful things,” he said. “So many things that wouldn’t have happened.”
“I don’t think the recovering community in Seymour would be the same without him. I love Chuck as if he were my own grandfather.”
Mary Jo Gallion, on her relationship with counselor Chuck Olson
“Sometimes, I run into someone I can’t help. But I do the best I can.”
Chuck Olson, addiction counselor
Who: Chuck Olson
Of note: Sober for 26 years; works as an addictions counselor in Jackson County