Packard Institute founder uses outdoor adventure, unconventional techniques in recovery journey
— Raynard Packard describes himself as “a native son with a split pedigree.” This seems accurate coming from a man who has, at different points in his life, been a Dogtown-era skateboarder, Olympic torch-bearer, drug addict, paratrooper, doctoral student, dedicated marathoner/triathlete and a licensed counselor. He is most well known for starting a nonprofit organization here in Akron called the Packard Institute, which helps clients mostly in their late teens and early 20s recover from alcohol and drug addictions.
“We strive to love and accept people where they are at,” Packard says. This approach likely stems from the many places Packard has been throughout his own life.
He spent his childhood in Akron before touring America nomad-style with his father and his two “moppet-headed” brothers in their 1974 VW van. In 1977, the family settled down in Venice, Calif., known then as “Dogtown,” the genesis of modern skateboarding culture, where Packard lived out his adolescent years. Packard reminisces of days spent hopping backyard fences to skate in drained swimming pools, building ad hoc ramps and hanging with the Z Boys, a legendary skateboarding team known for carving concrete slopes in the style of surfers riding waves.
“We were all feral kids,” Packard says. “We sort of existed on the margins of society.”
Slipping into addiction
Aside from the fun, Packard slipped into drug addiction as a teenager and was kicked out of high school in 1979 (although he apparently was a smart young rebel, since he passed the California High School Proficiency Exam, making him eligible for a college education). Packard’s skater buddies from his salad days, once a freewheeling posse of impoverished, straggly-haired California boys devoid of stable adult role models, are all currently in recovery from substance abuse or dead from it.
Packard opted to quit this lifestyle and find stability by joining “Uncle Sam and his Green Machine,” i.e., the military, in 1985.
As a paratrooper in the 18th Airborne Corps during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm era, Packard missed combat, staying “in the rear, with the gear” at Fort Bragg and earning a maroon beret. The experience would eventually lead him to adopt certain military traditions for his work at the Packard Institute, such as awarding dog tags stamped with each client’s personal credo to those who have reached a personal milestone in their battle with addiction.
Packard was dismissed from the military for drinking in 1990 and, upon returning to his hometown of Akron, lapsed back into addiction until he finally “crashed and burned.” He checked into recovery in 1992.
“I came into the loving embrace of the recovery community,” Packard says.
He turned his life around, graduating from the University of Akron in 1994. He began his graduate studies in pastoral counseling at Ashland Theological Seminar in 1997, the same year he began working as a counselor for the Akron Health Department.
Outside of work, Packard began running marathons and triathlons, a hobby he took up after quitting smoking. Although he considers himself “strictly a middle-of-the-pack schlub,” he has completed over 100 marathons and triathlons, a dozen or so Ironman events and three Boston Marathons.
Olympics with a full bladder
In 2002, Packard was chosen to run the Olympic torch through the streets of Akron on its way to Salt Lake City.
“It was the fastest mile I ever ran, I assure you,” says Packard, who had to pee badly before receiving the torch, but was afraid to leave and miss the hand-off, forcing him to dash through the city with a full bladder while handling the Olympic flame.
After 11 years spent working for the Akron Health Department, Packard felt he was too limited in the tools he could use as a counselor there, prompting him to open the Packard Institute in 2007 and quit his job the following year.
“I wanted something where I had the ability to take some risks,” he says. “I had learned that not everything works 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of the people.”
With this rationale, Packard brought in acupuncturists, reflexologists, art therapists, music therapists, dance therapists, psychodrama practitioners, recovery-oriented massotherapists, recovery-oriented martial arts practitioners and more.
“You have to bring together the absolute most enlightened, passionate circle of folks you can and find out what works, what’s going to blow someone’s mind,” he says.
“Tribalism” best describes the Packard Institute’s approach to helping groups of young people overcome their addictions by joining them together as a sort of family.
The Institute’s clients do a lot together, including kayaking trips on various U.S. rivers (the Cuyahoga, Tuscarawas, Potomac, Hiawassee, Weeki Wachee, etc.), fielding an amateur softball team dubbed the Misfits (Packard made comparisons to the rowdy squad from The Bad News Bears) and restoring classic American cars (a 1948 Packard Victoria Convertible, which was once owned by “Dean of the Big Bands” Johnny Singer, is their flagship car).
Drugs are the symptoms
Packard’s current clients are, on average, ages 18 to 25 and mostly ex-heroin users. “The drugs and the alcohol are symptoms,” Packard says. “We try to look past isolating them as alcoholics or drug addicts and treat them like human beings and realize that many of them have come from a lifetime of hurtful things.”
Packard is proud to say that the Institute has helped over 1,200 families without using any taxpayer money.
Many of his former clients from the Institute and his years working for the Health Department have contacted him later in life, now clean and stabilized.
One former client, a teen Packard counseled in the mid-90s, emailed him a few months ago, informing him that he recently graduated from law school and was wondering if the Institute needed any pro bono legal counsel.
“Sometimes people surprise you,” Packard says. “You have to see beyond the labels, see beyond the diagnostic code, and notice that this is a young person with enormous potential and believe in them.”
The highlight of Packard’s career as a counselor, though, came from helping treat a boy he discovered one day in a trash can. The boy, age 14 or 15 at the time, was in the midst of a psychotic episode and blown out on psychostimulants. Packard brought him to the Institute’s recovery residence in Highland Square, where he was “loved back to planet Earth.”
“It wasn’t the meds, it wasn’t the ‘intense therapy’ that he received or all the groups he went to; it was the culture that happened at this house,” Packard says.
During a dinner last winter at the recovery residence, this same kid brought out an acoustic guitar and performed a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” that left everyone in the room astonished.
“It was magical. Everyone around the table looked at each other and was stunned,” Packard says. “It’s not about the huge, cataclysmic blowouts, but the smaller moments.”
Packard is currently in the final “grueling” months of finishing his doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology through California Southern University. He is also looking forward to leading his clients on a kayaking trip down the Potomac River starting May 26, for which he plans on having no agenda or itinerary and wouldn’t mind getting a bit lost in the twists of the river, as the group doubtlessly has before.
Note the contrast here: grueling doctoral thesis vs. free-spirited wilderness excursion. Raynard Packard still has a wild boy inside him, and he probably always will. However, he has come a long way, appending the West Coast slang he developed as a skater with the lexicon of a scholar. He truly is a native son with a split pedigree. More importantly, he is a man who has overcome personal struggles and successfully dedicated his life to helping others do the same. And he isn’t going to stop.
To find out more, visit thepackardinstitute.com.