Real Places: The Retreat

John CurtissAs I pulled into the driveway at The Retreat in Wayzata on a rainy, weekday morning, I quickly discovered every parking spot was taken. As I squeezed my not-so-compact car into a not-so-legitimate parking space, my curiosity grew. “Who are all these people here? Why is it so busy? What exactly does this this place offer?” My questions would soon be answered by the caring, enthusiastic staff at The Retreat.

History Lesson from John Curtiss

To understand what The Retreat is, and why it was created, one needs to know about John Curtiss, the co-founder and president of The Retreat. At the age of 23, John was given a one-way airplane ticket to Minnesota from his parents, to attend Hazelden Treatment Center. After completing treatment, John worked for Hazelden in a variety of direct service and executive positions for nearly 20 years.

In 1991, John joined forces with Dr. George Mann (of St. Mary’s Hospital chemical dependency program) and other recovery professionals, to address growing concerns in the industry. Due to a variety of external pressures — including health insurance and managed care — there was a lack of accessible, affordable and effective treatment for people who needed it. John and the other concerned professionals formed a group called CORP — the Community of Recovery People — and they met once a month at the Rectory in St. Mary’s Basilica for seven years. Their goal was to create a new model for help that was affordable, accessible and effective.

The group focused on what worked in their own personal recovery journeys, and strove to get back to the basics that Bill W. and Dr. Bob provided for one another, specifically mutual help. The mutual help model that evolved was a radically different approach to assisting alcohol and drug dependent people and their families, and is the foundation for The Retreat.

What The Retreat Is— and Isn’t

As described on their website, “The Retreat is a residential recovery program offering an immersion in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Retreat is not treatment. We are a supportive-educational environment rather than a clinical or medical program.”

Staff admit that not everyone is a good candidate for The Retreat, so a thorough screening is conducted with every potential guest to make sure they meet the criteria; the person knows they have a problem of alcohol or drug dependency, they are motivated to recover and they are physically and psychologically stable. Those who do not meet the criteria are offered referrals to more appropriate organizations.

At the core of the curriculum is an in-depth study of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, plus presentations and practical applications of Steps One through Eight. Here’s a typical day at The Retreat:

7:15am – Meditation Practice
7:30am – Breakfast
8am – Big Book Study Group
10am – Living Sober Study Group
11am – Lecture Presentation
Noon – Lunch
1pm – Community meeting; Meditation; 4th/10th Step Al-anon speaker
2pm – Big Book Worksheets Group
3pm – Personal Time
6pm – Dinner
7pm – In House or Outside AA Meeting
9:00 Tenth Step Group

Guests are encouraged to immerse themselves  and focus on their recovery, so they are not allowed laptop computers, and DVD players and cell phones are discouraged. If someone wants an assessment or a meeting with a psychiatrist or psychologists, the Retreat has a network of professionals in the community that guests can access, using their insurance coverage or private pay. The Retreat does not accept any third party reimbursements.

Range of Services and Outcomes

This quote by John Curtiss summarizes the philosophy that drives services. “We believe that if we provide a dignified, safe and supportive environment, accurate information about the problem and solution, and a solid bridge to Alcoholics Anonymous, people will recover.”

There is a wide range of services, with reasonable fees. The residential program for men and women costs $4,900/month, an evening-only program runs $2,900/month and the day program for older adults is $1,500/month. Families can participate in a four day retreat at the gorgeous, new McIver Family Center for $495 (includes meals, lodging and materials), family conferences can be arranged, and family members are welcome to visit Sunday afternoons.

Residents who ‘graduate’ and need more support can move into one of several local sober houses, with fees ranging from $550-$600/month. There are partial scholarships available for those in need, and guests are encouraged to discuss financial needs with staff, as they never want a lack of resources to be an obstacle for help. There are countless AA and Alanon meetings held throughout the month on site, so by the time a guest leaves they know what a productive, well run meeting looks like.

Although there is a core paid staff, there are more than 350 dedicated and adept volunteers who provide mutual help, hope and support to the guests, and model what living and maintaining a sober life looks like and requires. These volunteers are often called the life blood and heart of the program, and according to Diane Poole, program director, “They show up reliably week after week, month after month, year after year.”

The RetreatWhen asked how the outcomes at The Retreat compare to other programs, John Curtiss responded, “Frequently our results are as good and often times better.” In 2013 The Retreat listed 59.2 percent of guests reported total and continuous abstinence from all mood-altering chemicals for the six months after their involvement at the retreat, 55.9 percent of guests reported continuous absence from all mood-altering chemicals for the 12 months after their involvement at the retreat, 94 percent of guests said their quality of life had improved significantly and 98 percent reported high or very high satisfaction with The Retreat, indicating they would recommend it to others.

Spiritual Setting and Supportive Staff

The rich history of the wooded grounds and beautiful buildings includes an original private residence, which was eventually sold to the order of Cenacle nuns who ran a retreat center for decades. Perhaps that explains the spiritual energy I felt the second I pulled into the driveway; calm, loving, peaceful, supportive and serene. And I hadn’t even met the staff.

The RetreatFrom Jim at the front desk who said, “Welcome. We’ve been expecting you,” to Tara, the polished and warm marketing person who dedicated two hours to my private tour, to the awesome Chef Kenny who whipped up a personalized, savory dish when he heard I was vegetarian, I felt every employee was friendly, kind, sincere and passionate about doing the right thing to best serve men and women in recovery. Even the clean, comfortable, private rooms spoke volumes: We respect the men and women who are here, we support you and you are worthy of everything we have to offer you.

When discussing the spiritual support available to guests, including spiritual advisors, meditation guidance, private meditation rooms, outdoor walking trails and garden benches, John Curtiss added, “I feel it is every employee’s responsibility to support the spiritual needs of the residents.” At the end of my visit I heard John share his advice with staff who were concerned about a particular guest. “We just have to love him up!” They smiled, nodded in agreement and left to carry on their important work.

Any wonder the parking lot was full?

Mary Rose Remington is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities. For more information on The Retreat visit; email info@; phone 866-928-3434.

Last Updated on February 6, 2020