It’s hard to blame James Mallery II for getting excited about storage space.

“In each wing we have a nice extra storage space,” he said, opening a door labeled “storage” to a dry, clean room with neatly stacked supplies. “I mean, this is nice.”

On a tour this week of the new Thunderbird-Wren Halfway House in Duluth's Morgan Park neighborhood, Mallery used the word “space” frequently. He’s clearly reveling in the difference between the new and the old.

The "old" was the Thunderbird-Wren Halfway House on the corner of Fourth Avenue West and Third Street, just above the St. Louis County motor pool and next to the county’s parking ramp. It had 20 beds serving men and women who were in recovery from substance abuse disorder but not quite ready to go out on their own.

Eric Morse prepares a meal at the Thunderbird-Wren Halfway House Tuesday. The facility’s dining area is visible in the background. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Eric Morse prepares a meal at the Thunderbird-Wren Halfway House Tuesday. The facility’s dining area is visible in the background. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The "new," at 21,000 square feet, is about three times bigger than the previous facility, Mallery said, but seems to dwarf the "old" by more than that. It has twice as many beds — 20 for men and 20 for women. As opposed to the cramped city lot of the past, the new facility is on 10 wooded acres, with a view of creek, hills and trees out the back.

In the old place, the storage room was the basement. The nurses’ office and admissions area were crammed into about the same amount of space as a single administrative office in the new facility.

It’s truly new. Construction of the facility, which including the land cost close to $7 million, was completed late last year, with a move-in Nov. 21. The old building was constructed in 1910 and needed a lot of work, Mallery said. To bring it back up to standards would have required a $1 million investment and wouldn’t have provided room for any more residents. Renovating just didn’t make sense.

St. Louis County officials came to the same conclusion. The county purchased the lot in 2018 for $260,000 from Minnesota Indian Primary Residential Treatment Center Inc., which owns Thunderbird-Wren Halfway House in the Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center in Sawyer, with Mallery as CEO.

James Mallery II, chief executive officer of Minnesota Indian Primary Residential Treatment Center Inc., which owns  Thunderbird-Wren, talks about the halfway house’s programming. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
James Mallery II, chief executive officer of Minnesota Indian Primary Residential Treatment Center Inc., which owns Thunderbird-Wren, talks about the halfway house’s programming. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Reuse of the building was considered, county spokeswoman Dana Kazel said in an email, but it was decided that it was “well beyond repair.” Instead, the building will be demolished as soon as this year, and the land converted into additional parking space.

Whether old or new, the Thunderbird-Wren’s purpose is the same: to help Native American men and women who have completed primary treatment for substance abuse to have a smoother path toward living independently.

“Addiction is not a 30-day disease,” Mallery said. “That first level of care in a primary inpatient facility is one’s first step in the road to recovery. But when they’re done with that, many people aren’t ready to go home, so they need more extended care. That was the main push for why we did this (when) we went from 20 beds to 40 beds.”

Additional employees were hired to accommodate the additional clients. The organization currently has a workforce of 85, with about 25 of them based at Thunderbird-Wren, he said.

Many of the clients come to Thunderbird-Wren from Mash-ka-wisen, which has 46 beds. But Mallery said clients come from all over Minnesota, and occasionally from Wisconsin.

Obijwe phrases written on a white board in the Thunderbird-Wren’s dining room. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Obijwe phrases written on a white board in the Thunderbird-Wren’s dining room. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Neither facility is affiliated with any reservation, but the vast majority of clients are Native American, and the center honors Native culture. A conference room on the second floor that’s large enough for all of the clients and staff was equipped with a heavy-duty ventilation system.

“We’re able to smudge and smoke the pipe” there without setting off the fire alarm, he said.

“We are a Native American program, and culture and spirituality is something that was taken from us years and years and years ago,” Mallery said. “For a lot of people, that’s something that can help me stay sober when I walk out the door — not only going to meetings, but getting involved in sweats, in powwows.”

Clients typically stay for 90 days, he said. They’re required to attend support-group meetings and scheduled into 15 hours a week of treatment programming. That still gives them time to go to work or look for jobs. Although the new Thunderbird-Wren House isn’t as centrally located as the old, it is on a bus line, Mallery noted.

The treatment is abstinence-based, he said. Medication-assisted therapies, such as methadone or suboxone, aren't part of it. Cedar, sage and sweetgrass are.

Licensed alcohol and drug counselor Bryan Brucks talks to a visitor in his office at the Thunderbird-Wren house. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Licensed alcohol and drug counselor Bryan Brucks talks to a visitor in his office at the Thunderbird-Wren house. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

It all takes place in what looks, from the outside, like a modern apartment building or hotel. Most rooms house two people, with a couple rooms that are for a single person or are handicapped-accessible. There’s a lounge area on each floor of each wing. Women and men are housed in separate wings (Wren and Thunderbird). The spacious dining area overlooks woods, hills and creek, currently covered in snow.

It’s nearly 80% occupied, Mallery said, with a waiting list for the men’s wing.

About 40% of the staff are Native Americans, and more than 20% are former clients, Mallery said.

Although the place is a great improvement, the underlying motivation hasn’t changed, he said.

“What's the biggest thing I want them to get when they walk out the door besides being sober?” Mallery asked rhetorically. “Knowing that we gave a damn, that we care … that we will do what we can to help them overcome whatever their obstacles are.”

Learn more about Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center and Thunderbird-Wren Halfway House at mashkawisen.com.

Two books sit on a table in a commons area at the Thunderbird-Wren house. Native values are incorporated at the facility in the treatment of chemical dependency. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Two books sit on a table in a commons area at the Thunderbird-Wren house. Native values are incorporated at the facility in the treatment of chemical dependency. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)