The journey from a high-fashion career in New York City to working as a Blaine County drug court coordinator is a personal one for East Fork resident Sonya Wilander. She recently spearheaded a successful effort to open a sober house for men in recovery in Hailey.
“I didn’t have an education in this field when I started, so I just started volunteering,” said Wilander, 56.
Born in Zambia where her father worked in the copper mines as a draftsman and manager, Wilander was raised in the beach town suburbs of Durban, South Africa, during the apartheid era of institutionalized racism. Whites could spend time where they pleased, but blacks were restricted from certain areas and had to be back where they lived by curfew, Wilander said.
“There would be 30 white people on a beach and no blacks, although there were seven times as many blacks in the country as whites,” she said. “We had no access to television at the time because it was not allowed by the government.”
At 18, Wilander left Durban for New York, where she worked as a fashion model throughout the 1980s, traveling widely and making good money.
“It’s an incredible experience if you can keep your head on,” she said.
During the international campaign of divestment to end apartheid, Wilander sometimes was restricted from travel herself by some countries challenging the South African regime.
She met Swedish tennis star Mats Wilander during that time, when he was one of the top three players in the world. They married and moved to Idaho 19 years ago. They have four children.
While her kids were in local schools, Wilander became involved with a group of parents and teachers concerned about runaways and kids who had been thrown out of their homes.
“We wanted to start a home for adolescents and try to get them reunited back into their families, to resolve the issues that they faced,” she said. “We found that home wouldn’t work out, but I later learned about the need for an addiction-recovery home.”
Wilander’s understanding of addiction issues stems from her own family experiences.
“One of my sisters was an addict and her husband overdosed. Their daughter, my niece, is also a heroin addict who was arrested in Cape Town for possession,” Wilander said. “I grew up with substance abuse in my family. This may have something to do with what I have decided to do with my life.”
About five and a half years ago, Wilander started volunteering at the Blaine County drug court, a diversion program within the justice system to keep addicts out of jail and in recovery. She took a weeklong training at a drug court for a large population in Billings, Mont., where oil industry workers were a big part of the economy.
“There was a lot of meth use there,” she said. “The court was bigger. Clients would only get three minutes in front of a judge. In Blaine County, it’s 10 minutes.”
Wilander has taken webinars and watched educational videos about addiction and recovery, and is nearing completion of a two-year associate’s degree in addiction studies.
Along the way, she has donated a considerable part of her life to a program that serves addicts in the court system, writing the intake paperwork for drug court participants, checking to see that they attend court-ordered 12-step meetings and providing advocacy.
“I want to see these men return to being contributing members of society,” she said.
Last week, Wilander held an open house for Men’s Second Chance Living, a sober house in Hailey that will house up to 10 men in recovery, some of whom may be under court supervision.
“Addiction can happen to anyone, not just low-income people,” she said. “My feeling is that we see them more often in the court system because they cannot afford to hire lawyers to take care of it when they are in trouble.”