He beat booze and drugs, now he's saving others

Watershed chief executive officer Will Temple. Picture: ROBERT PEET

Watershed chief executive officer Will Temple. Picture: ROBERT PEET

Will Temple cuts an imposing figure against the backdrop of his quaint, ordered home in suburban Blackbutt.

A shoulder-length pony tail sits behind a craggily, at times stern face - the chief executive officer of Watershed Drug and Alcohol Recovery and Education Centre looks every bit the part of someone who has fought their own battles against addiction and won.

"It was too much sex, drugs and rock n roll mate," he says of his heady days, which came to an end more than 25 years ago when he sought help from the very organisation he now runs, then known as Wollongong Crisis Centre.

Before getting help, Temple worked as a merchant seaman, travelling the world and living life to the fullest.

He would binge, and binge hard, in the months he had off in between voyages.

"It was a lifestyle not a job, a lifestyle where we worked hard and we played hard," he says.

''Until we ... start to look at drug addiction as being an illness then we’re not really going to go anywhere.''

As Temple neared the end of his twenties, the realities of life began to hit home.

After the birth of his first child to a now ex-partner he realised things had to change.

"That was the start of the recovery process," he says.

Temple first sought help for his "out of control" drug and alcohol issues from Wollongong Crisis Centre in 1984, but he didn't get clean overnight.

Although he still enjoys the odd beer, Temple had his last illegal drug - a hit of heroin - on September 10, 1986, at age 30.

"The program showed me I didn't need to take drugs or alcohol to enjoy life and that if I continued using the way I was, then my life expectancy would probably be pretty limited," he says.

Watershed chief Will Temple (left) with Gareth Ward and NSW Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries during the launch of the new program.

Watershed chief Will Temple (left) with Gareth Ward and NSW Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries during the launch of the new program.

"I was so lucky that a place like this was available to me when I needed it."

After getting clean, Temple enrolled in Tafe, and in 1988 returned to the crisis centre as a drug and alcohol counsellor.

It was a brief stint - the job's low wages meant he took the opportunity to return to his "waterfront roots" and better support his young family by taking a position as a skipper with the Maritime Services Board in Port Kembla, later known as the Port Kembla Port Corporation.

But he never left drug and alcohol counselling completely behind.

In 1990 he joined Wollongong Crisis Centre's management board and over the next nine years transferred the skills he had learned into the crisis centre.

He became chief executive officer in 2001, and since then has piloted the award-winning organisation through years of continuous growth.

With such a long history with the service, it's unsurprising he passionately defends drug addicts as victims of illness, rather than criminals.

He bristles when I ask him whether there are addicts who can't be saved, and responds in a quiet, concentrated voice, occasionally hitting the table to emphasise his point.

"Until we ... start to look at drug addiction as being an illness then we're not really going to go anywhere," he says. "Drug addiction is a chronic recurring illness.

"If they come into treatment six times because they need to be there then so what? If you're an asthmatic and you go to the doctors six times or 27 times does that mean asthmatic treatment doesn't work? If you're a diabetic and you go to the doctor 27 times does that mean the diabetes treatment doesn't work?

"No it doesn't."

Temple can afford to speak from both sides of the argument. In addition to having overcome his addiction demons, he is also a survivor of prostate cancer, having been diagnosed earlier this year.

"I think my ability to cope with it ... has been greatly assisted by the knowledge and skills I've picked up through working with drug addiction," he says.

Now in recovery, Temple is preparing again to take the organisation through yet another year as it struggles to deal with an ever-growing number of addiction victims.

He touts the organisation's "incredible success rate", and says 85 per cent of people who enrol its detox program get clean, with 50 per cent staying on to complete full treatment.

He estimates about half of those eventually relapse, but says Watershed's focus is "putting the seed in the head" of users, showing them there's another way.

Last financial year, Watershed added a non-residential "Day Program" to its suite of services in an attempt to meet increasing demand.

In its first six months, 166 clients were assessed, with 117 being admitted into the program.

The organisation's primary site sits at Berkeley, overlooking Lake Illawarra, and contains 14 beds available to people over the age of 15. It's the same site where, in 1978, a group of community members and alcohol and drug workers established Wollongong Crisis Centre.

Watershed also operates the Carinya Half-Way House, a six-bed supported, longer-term accommodation program, allowing clients to transition from residential rehabilitation back into the community.

Despite efforts to increase its services, the organisation is still struggling to meet the needs of the community, and patient numbers are growing rapidly. In the 2011-12 financial year, 195 clients were admitted to Watershed's various services. In 2012-13, that number skyrocketed to 334.

Adding to that number is the 300-odd people Temple says are placed on the waiting list each year.

He says once that wait could have been as long as a month, but the additional facilities now mean patients generally have access to help within five days.

Although the centre works on a "first-come, first-served" basis, Temple explains staff use certain criteria to determine the level of risk a person is facing, and how soon they need to be admitted for treatment.

Watershed's running costs of more than $1.7 million are funded mainly through state and federal governments.

The organisation does accept donations, but doesn't rely on them because, as Temple puts it, drug and alcohol rehabilitation isn't "a sexy field".

"People really don't want to know about drug and alcohol until they've actually been impacted by it," he says.

"It's still seen as a problem of choice, it's still got that stigma attached to it that you're a drug addict and you're a drug addict by choice.

"In some cases that's correct but ... we're now seeing second- and third-generation drug users, so we're now seeing [drug user's] children's children coming into the centre."

Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data reveals police are charging more people with drug offences each year in the Illawarra.

In the Wollongong City Council area, there was a 34.1 per cent increase in the number of illegal drug offences recorded from 2012 to 2013, while in Shellharbour, there was a 75 per cent increase in the same period.

Both Wollongong and Shellharbour recorded a higher number of drug offences than the state average per 100,000 of 618.8, with 667.4 and 712.4 respectively.

Temple has also seen the types of drugs causing problems for people change.

Whereas it was heroin in the 1970s and 80s, he says alcohol is now the number one substance negatively impacting people's lives.

"Alcohol very rarely rated on our radar but over the last five or six years alcohol has started to rocket up the charts and is now becoming one of the key areas that we deal with," he says.

To combat this, the state government last year opened various "Sober Centres" around the state, including one in Wollongong's CBD, which is run by Watershed.

The drunk tank, as it has become known, acts as an alternative to a night in the police cells or hospital for overly intoxicated people picked up in the centre of Wollongong.

Temple says if one person can be helped, then the centre has done its job.

"If we can keep that guy clean, sober and off the streets it's actually done its job already," he says.

"At this stage of the game it's about as successful as we expected it to be ... people are becoming familiar with it and police are starting to use it.

"From that perspective it's been a success - one out of 10 - we're laughing, that's a really good result."

Watershed chief executive officer Will Temple. Picture: ROBERT PEET

Watershed chief executive officer Will Temple. Picture: ROBERT PEET