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<b>SOBER SERENITY:</b> Founded by Mildred Pinheiro, Casa Serena has offered shelter and sobriety to women for more than 50 years (painting by Isbel Ingham).

Paul Wellman

SOBER SERENITY: Founded by Mildred Pinheiro, Casa Serena has offered shelter and sobriety to women for more than 50 years (painting by Isbel Ingham).


Casa Serena, the Magic House

A Place Where Women Learn Sober Living Skills


SOBER LIVES: It’s been some 30 years since I visited Casa Serena, a former sorority where women learn to live sober lives in a spirit of sisterly caring.

The day I revisited this unobtrusive Bath Street house, 18 women from all walks of life, ages 18 to 65, were learning to walk a new life, without alcohol or drugs.

Inside on the mantel there’s a photo of the beloved founder, Mildred Pinheiro, herself an alcoholic, who opened Casa Serena in 1959. At the time there was no other place in Santa Barbara for a female alcoholic to go.

Barney Brantingham

She opened the 1879 residence with little more to offer than “a cup of coffee, a heart full of love, and the AA book,” according to the director, Craig Belknap, a straight-shooter who calls himself “an old Texas boy.” But there’s no Dallas bluster about this 66-year-old who still carries wounds of a Vietnam battle.

About 90 to 100 women a year spend up to 90 days at Casa Serena, a total of around 6,000 during the last 54 years. Some make it, some don’t. “We have women who have come back three or four times,” Belknap said. “They know they’re loved and protected. They’re going to be safe.

“Casa is the only state-licensed, nondenominational residential treatment center in Santa Barbara County for women,” Belknap told me. It offers counseling, a 12-step program, and hookups with local agencies, among other things. Women who perhaps existed on a diet of McDonald’s and Taco Bell learn to plan, cook, and eat nourishing meals, make their beds, get up and prepare breakfast, and get ready to return to the outside world.

“We are really doing parenting,” he said. His soft-spoken wife, Nancy, a state-licensed counselor, is program director.

I first learned about Casa Serena (“serene house”) when a friend’s mother who had been living in her car went there for a spell. But she soon left, found an apartment with the help of her children, and kept drinking.

Casa Serena has strict rules. To enter you must have been clean and sober for at least 24 hours and commit to a 90-day program. There’s a charge to live there, but no one is turned away solely for lack of funds, Belknap said. “We charge what they can afford.” After a two-week intensive recovery counseling period, residents volunteer with local nonprofits.

There’s drug testing. “If you’re using, you’re gone,” Belknap said, adding, “We exit them safely.”

After 90 days, a woman can return to the community or move to Casa Serena’s sister, Grad House, for up to nine months if there’s a vacancy. Oliver House is available for recovering mothers to be united with their children.

Casa Serena largely depends on donations and volunteers. “Santa Barbara has a very vibrant recovery community,” Belknap said. “They write checks and do sweat work. It’s a good crowd.”

Women from the community come back to assist in the 12-step programs and help the newcomers. He outlined one key to sobriety at Casa Serena: “You do it by getting out of yourself and helping others. There is a presence here, an aura of people helping one another.”

The annual fundraising and recovery celebration luncheon will be held on September 28. It’s sold out. You can donate or check out Casa Serena’s wish list. It includes blankets, comforters, pillows, mattresses, an electric tea kettle, toaster, coffee mugs, bus passes, and much more. Oliver House needs diapers and a swing set. Visit casaserena.org or call 564-8701.

When I visited years ago, a 21-year-old woman shyly slid a poem to me across the kitchen table. It read:

To this Magic House of grey

Up the steps I came one day.

Wallowing in self-pity.

I needed help so desperately

Thank God this Magic House appeared.

Through eyes of mine

So dimmed with tears.

Sick and feeling really down,

I almost stopped and turned around.

But she didn’t. It takes courage to beat the Big A. I want to believe that she did and that she’s well today, clean and sober.

CLARK TRIAL: The fate of the late Huguette Clark’s proposed multimillion-dollar Santa Barbara Bellosguardo art foundation remains up in the air. Distant relatives are challenging her will, with a trial scheduled Tuesday, September 17, in New York City over her $300 million estate. At least 60 lawyers are involved, along with the N.Y. attorney general and the 19 relatives.

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