PENIKESE ISLAND — This grassy speck of the Elizabeth Islands, 14 miles from Woods Hole, served a century ago as a leper colony on the fringe of Buzzards Bay. Shunned and stigmatized, its infected outcasts roamed the island behind locked gates that separated them from the healthy.
Their graves are marked by small, simple stones, a testament to their lonely place apart. Now, Penikese might become a way station for others who are marginalized, this time as a 75-acre refuge for those fighting opioid abuse.
“It would be a jarring change here. It takes people out of their own heads,” said Ted Doyle, a director of a nonprofit group that sees a healing balm in the island’s beauty and quiet. “You’re not bombarded by the stimuli and pressures that got you involved in the first place.”
The group, called the Penikese Island School, is seeking to build a year-round residential center on the unpopulated island, where men over 18 years old can continue their recovery free of distraction after completing detox elsewhere.
“There are few good, isolated options for opioid treatment,” said Doyle, the school’s treasurer, who added that restricting clients to one gender helps avoid distractions and aids recovery.
For nearly 40 years, the group ran a private residential school for troubled boys on the island. It closed in 2011, primarily because of the state’s increasing reluctance to send youths to residential programs, school officials said.
In 2014, the group opened a substance-abuse treatment center on Penikese, but the effort ended after five months. Two years later, a program geared toward opioid abuse and mental health also faltered.
But Doyle and the other directors of the school are trying again and hope to incorporate programming recommendations from McLean Hospital, the Harvard-affiliated psychiatric facility in Belmont.
“This time, we think we have a paradigm that will work,” Doyle said.
The program would provide therapy guided by a clinical staff designed to provide a practical and philosophical way forward from detox. But there also would be plenty of down time — for reading, walking, and enjoying the panoramas from Martha’s Vineyard to New Bedford — to encourage the healing that can emerge from undisturbed reflection.
Organizers have also reached out for advice to public health officials, physicians, teachers, and the families of substance abusers, Doyle said.
The program’s nuts-and-bolts are “teed up,” he added. What’s missing is a major sponsor, ideally “someone with a personal stake in the mission,” Doyle said. The group foresees an annual budget of $1.5 million.
Until then, organizers are using the state-owned wildlife sanctuary for retreats and other wellness-related activities. The group, which owns a two-story main building and a one-room schoolhouse there, is allowed to use the island in return for oversight and maintenance.
The visits foreshadow the type of programs the board wants there permanently, bringing life and function to a cluster of weathered buildings where visitors can downshift and think about ways to patch their lives together.
“The place to be is where you are,” one sign on the island reads.
On a recent weekend, seven women and two men — some recovering from opioids, some from alcohol — stepped ashore after a bumpy ride from Woods Hole in a 36-foot ferry built in the style of a fishing trawler.
“I’ve never been on a retreat,” said Kathleen Duseau, a 47-year-old teacher with four children who has struggled with drinking and drugs for decades. “I want to get in touch with myself. I have a lot of resentments I need to get over.”
Duseau and the others stayed overnight in a two-story saltbox equipped with 12 bunks, ceiling beams salvaged from shipwrecks, a cast-iron stove fueled by wood, and oil lanterns that provided all the light.
A hammock sagged invitingly in a book-lined room off a large kitchen, where the chimney had been built from red bricks once used as ship ballast. Near a Ping-Pong table was a tall telescope used for star-gazing far from the blur of city lights. A porch looked over the shimmering waters between the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard.
“I just wanted to come here and get away from the everyday mundane,” said Beverly Burke, a 56-year-old Stoughton woman who is five months sober. “This is going to get me focused on my recovery.”
The weekend visitors were all former clients at Recovering Champions, a substance-abuse treatment facility on Cape Cod. The facility’s senior clinician, Toby Lineaweaver, once directed the Penikese Island School, and he arranged this trip as a way to supplement the treatment they received on the mainland.
Like much of the support staff, Lineaweaver has struggled with recovery himself. And when he led an informal discussion before lunch — a conversation filled with harrowing stories of addiction and recovery’s pain and promise — he spoke from experience.
“How does a person keep going? There’s so much loss and letting go, isn’t there?” Lineaweaver asked as the staff stacked piles of sandwiches behind him. “I use the self-care that I preach to you all the time. The rewards will be many, many fold.”
Doyle, a troubled teenager decades ago, said he knows that to be true. When he finally straightened out, Doyle said, his parents were there to welcome him back.
“Penikese, to me, has always been a place for people who weren’t as lucky as I was. It moved me from the moment I stepped on the island,” he said. “We’re not going to give up.”