Joseph P. Pons Sr. of Bel Air spends every Saturday morning at the county Detention Center.

The recovering alcoholic is not there to do time. He's there on a mission.

Pons, a 68-year-old breeder of thoroughbreds, gives a helping hand to the down and out in a place many county residents have never visited -- the county jail. There, Pons counsels other recovering alcoholics, helping them to get their lives back.

Pons is credited with starting a support group and counseling program for alcoholic inmates in the Detention Center two years ago. He took the lead in starting the program by approaching the jail's administrators about his idea for a support group for alcoholic inmates.

Today he has four volunteer assistants -- all recovering alcoholics.

Some are former inmates.

Although his aim in the work is to reach out to others, Pons says the program is helpful to him as well.

"The greatest payoff for me is that it keeps me straight," Pons said.

"The best way to keep it is to give it away."

Eleven years ago, Pons was on the brink of losing many of the things he valued most -- his family, his health and his 100-acre horse farm south of Bel Air.

He was an alcoholic, and the disease was ruining his life.

Pons said he started drinking as a teen-ager. As he drank more heavily, his children left the family farm and his horse-breeding business nearly collapsed.

"I almost threw it all away by drinking," said Pons, owner of Country Life Farm on Old Joppa Road.

But Pons turned his life around through alcohol treatment programs and support groups. His five children and their families returned home, and together the family has built the horse farm and business into a success.

Pons has never forgotten the important role the support groups and treatment played in helping him get his own life back on track. That's why he commits his time and the lessons of his own experience to helping others turn their lives around through support programs he runs at the Detention Center and at Fallston General Hospital.

"Eleven years ago, I thought they deserved to be in jail," Pons said of inmates. "Let them suffer. Just let me have my booze."

But Pons said his opinion changed after he went through the painful process of recovery.

"When you see them come out, it's great to see people -- who were in detox shaking and in withdrawal -- being a good human being again," Pons said. "They start a new life."

Lt. Cole Nelson, a spokesman for the detention center, said the support program organized by Pons is offered in addition to the services of a staff psychologist, counselor and group therapy.

Pons said he wanted to start the program after seeing recovering alcoholics he knew return to jail.

Each Saturday, he and his team of volunteers go to the detention center to conduct the support meetings. About 20 inmates participate in the program.

Pons estimates that 85 percent of the detention center's inmates are being held for crimes related to drugs or alcohol. Many of them would never have sought help for their disease if they had not been sent to jail, said Pons.

At the meetings, Pons said, he starts with a simple message: " 'I'm Joe.

I'm an alcoholic.' We then tell them it doesn't have to be that way."

Pons's volunteer work with inmates extends into other areas of the community.

He holds weekly support meetings for motorists who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated and ordered by Harford Circuit Court to seek counseling.

Pons also conducts regular support meetings for patients at Fallston Hospital's drug and alcohol treatment center.

The key to recovery, Pons said he tells inmates and hospital patients, is to crack the denial of their drinking -- and to maintain a sense of humor.

One time, Pons said, a man he had been counseling told him, while they were watching a basketball game on television, that he was thinking about killing himself. Pons said he told the man to come back at half-time.

"He came back," Pons said. "He didn't commit suicide. . . . I kid them.

You've got to have a sense of humor."

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