When an alumnus like Bus Hollingbery ’44, a former Cougar linebacker and son of football coaching legend “Babe” Hollingbery, comes to the university with a good idea, the university listens.

A few years ago, Hollingbery, a recovering alcoholic, was thinking about how difficult it can be to start recovery. His own grandson, Will, had just taken a leave of absence from WSU to sort out his life and get clean. For a kid like Will, returning to campus and falling back in with his old friends and routines could be a problem, he thought. So while here for a football game one weekend, Bus wondered aloud to school officials why WSU didn’t have more resources for students trying to break free of addictions. “They’d have more of a chance of staying sober,” he says.

A student heads out the door of Stepping Stones Recovery House. The small home on College Hill offers students in treatment a place to live that's free from drugs and alcohol.
A student heads out the door of Stepping Stones Recovery House. The small home on College Hill offers students in treatment a place to live that’s free from drugs and alcohol. (Photo Robert Hubner)

When Bus himself was a student at Washington State University, drinking wasn’t a problem in his social set of athletes. “When my father was coaching there was no smoking or drinking of any kind. If you got caught, you lost your uniform,” he says. But after college, he struggled with addiction. After more than two decades of sobriety, he knows how valuable a supportive environment can be.

In response to his question, Washington State University officials did something their counterparts at most other universities just wouldn’t–they started work on enhancing the counseling and support services, and thinking about offering recovering students a place to get away from peer pressure.

One of the most difficult times during recovery is the beginning, says Jerry Pastore, substance abuse counselor for WSU. It requires breaking ties with old friends and situations, and finding new friends and support for a drug- and alcohol-free environment. The school decided to create a housing option for students that would help them through that high-risk period.

Every school has drug and alcohol problems, says Pastore. WSU is one of the few that is taking steps to not only offer a place for students to recover, but to promote and advertise it. In 2005, Mel Taylor in the WSU Office of Business Affaris found a small home for sale on College Hill, within walking distance to campus.

“It took us about a year and a half to get it together,” says Pastore. Now three students can live in the home, called the Stepping Stones Recovery House, and many more can use it for meetings and as a place for support. “We’re one of the very few schools in the country doing this,” says Pastore. In fact, there are fewer than 10 other university-sanctioned recovery houses in the nation.

Most schools are reluctant to talk about the issue of substance abuse among students. “The mentality is if we talk about it, we have a problem,” says Pastore. “And some universities don’t feel that it’s their responsibility to do something like this.”

In his first years at WSU, Will Hollingbery was using marijuana and struggling to pass his classes. “My grades were really bad, and I was about to get kicked out of school,” he says, putting it plainly. He tried transferring to Oregon, but found himself in a similar crowd and facing the same issues. “No matter where I went, there were always going to be the same people,” he says, so he decided to come back to Pullman.

Will knew he couldn’t go back to his old friends and residence, so on his own volition he approached the school about living in the recovery house. “It was awesome,” he says. “There was another student there and we had both been sober for the same amount of time.” Besides having one another to lean on, they had a counselor who helped them structure their days. “We weren’t on our own,” says Will. “Something was working for me.”

Students must voluntarily apply to live in the recovery house. They must also be sober for at least 30 days, have completed a treatment program, and be a full-time student at WSU. In order to stay in the house, they must pay $450 a month, have ongoing counseling, and attend 12-step meetings.

Will found his first year of sobriety difficult, especially finding and maintaining a strict schedule. “I was just trying to figure out how my brain worked,” he says. After eight months, he joined the rowing team, needing a “structured outlet,” he says. “That and the house were the best things for me. I rowed six days a week with three to four to five hours of practice a day. I had no time to look for trouble.”

He stayed clean and his grades improved. Now a 3.0 student, he has moved out after two years in the house, though he would have been happy to stay longer. “I just wanted someone else to be able to move in there,” he says. He’s working to complete a degree in organic agriculture. His housemate and friend graduated last May and is now pursuing a master’s degree at Western Washington University.

While the house has been a success, it could be larger and serve more students, says Pastore, who hopes that sometime soon WSU can offer a similar residence for women.

As for Bus, he’s happy to add to the Hollingbery legacy at WSU by supporting a resource for students who need help breaking their addictions. “I think there is an issue and a need at every school,” he says.