Will County Council on Thursday approved a zoning change and special use permit for a proposed drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for a property off Route 53 in Joliet Township.
The rehabilitation center is planned for a building at 2019 Chicago St. The applicant is Bipin Sharma who operates two other centers in the Joliet area through his company, Existential Counselor Society, to treat men with disorders related to substance use.
The board tabled the issue at its April meeting. A few residents of a nearby subdivision complained about the proposal at that meeting, though they expressed more frustration over pre-existing traffic issues along Route 53.
But on Thursday, when the meeting opened for public comment on the center, about two dozen people lined up, nearly all of whom were supportive of Sharma and his proposal. Many were either Sharma clients or family members of clients treated at the Existential Counselor Society.
They spoke enthusiastically about Sharma’s approach and dedication to her clients.
Elwood resident Lynn Ingram said her son, Daniel, who was in attendance, “struggled for years with drugs and alcohol.” Two years after completing Sharma’s program, Ingram said his son was sober, had a new career and was “thriving.”
“Having ECS services right here in Will County, I truly believe, saved his life,” Ingram said.
Mokena resident Michael Cervantes, 57, said he ‘surrendered’ about a year ago to his substance use disorder. He said he had been to several treatment centers with little success, but eventually found his way to one of Sharma’s facilities. Cervantes said he celebrated a year of continuous sobriety earlier this month.
“Coming to ECS helped me understand why I was using drugs and alcohol,” Cervantes said. “It helped me understand who and what I am and what I needed to do to live a somewhat happy and productive life.”
Other professionals who have worked with Sharma have praised him for not seeking to profit from his centers, but instead focusing on their well-being, even if they could not afford the services.
The personal stories shared brought one board member to tears.
The nearly 43,000 square foot property on Chicago Street was previously used by the Fraternal Order of Eagles as a club and tavern, according to county documents. Sharma said he plans to provide 13 beds at what will be his third centre. Clients typically stay at the facility temporarily, for about 28 days, before moving on to longer-term programs.
Sharma said he understood the concerns of locals. Although there is still a stigma around addiction, Sharma said, he takes his relationship with his neighbors seriously and has never had a problem at either of his first two centers.
“I run (my crosses) with a fierce sense of discipline,” he said. “I make sure people understand that we respect our community.”
He added that the proposed center on Chicago Street is in an “ideal” location because it is not next to houses and the property was vacant before he bought it. Sharma said it’s also not big enough for many other types of businesses to use. He said his center would also not contribute significantly to traffic congestion along Route 53.
Sharma opened its first center on Manhattan Road in Joliet Township in 2016 and its second on Richards Street in Joliet last year. He estimated that he treated over 1,400 people through his program.
A supermajority of at least 20 members was needed to approve the zoning change and permit, as a company that owns property adjacent to Sharma’s land filed a protest petition with the county against the proposed center.
In the end, 21 members voted for the zoning change and two abstained. Sharma said he was relieved after a “stressful” month of trying to gain enough support and was heartened to see so many of his clients coming forward to share their stories to help him.
Sharma said he aims to open his third rehab center “as soon as possible”.
“With the time I have, my goal is to help as many people (as I can) before I die,” he said.