By ELINOR J. BRECHER
Beth Lang knew the misery of addiction because she lived it.
She entered recovery through 12-step programs, and for more than two decades as executive director of Better Way of Miami, guided others on similar journeys.
“She was pretty much obsessive and compulsive about helping people,’’ said her husband, Jimmy Klinakis, a former Better Way client, now its operations director. “That was her mission. On her death bed, I had tried to console her: ‘Me and you have helped thousands get their lives together, get educated, assistance in housing.’ She opened her eyes, grabbed my hand, and said, ‘It wasn’t me; it was God.’’’
Lang, born Oct. 29, 1938, in Red Bank, NJ, died of smoking-related lung cancer Monday at her home in Miami Shores. She was 72, clean and sober for 35 years.
Lang came to South Florida in the late 1980s from the upstate New York town of Narrowsburg, where she’d begun her recovery from alcohol and prescription-drug addiction. A registered nurse, she ran a Sullivan County, NY substance-abuse treatment program before becoming Better Way’s volunteer executive director in 1990.
A non-profit started by recovering substance abusers in 1983, Better Way was as down-and-out as its sick, homeless clients when Lang took over. It was broke, operating out of a derelict crack house, and “had a bad reputation,’’ according to Klinakis.
Under her leadership, partnering with social-service providers, religious leaders, politicians, even trade unions, it grew into a respected program that treats clients’ mental, physical, spiritual, medical and logistical issues holistically. Last year, it won accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.
In honoring Lang with its Lifetime Achievement Award last year, Better Way called her “a true visionary,’’ and noted that she made it possible for thousands to kick their habits, then find safe haven in Better Way transitional housing.
“There are miracles that do come true,” Lang told The Miami Herald in 1995, at the ribbon cutting of a 56-unit, subsidized apartment complex at 675 NW 17th St., west of Overtown, once a notorious drug den.
Among the program’s success stories: Juan Mathis, 43, who did time in prison and spent 15 years on the street. He met Lang in 1998, when she counseled him in recovery. Now he’s Better Way’s assistant operations director.
“She taught me how not to be co-dependent and work for what I wanted and not steal,’’ said Mathis. “She was a role model.’’
Lang’s daughter, Betsy Lynch, said that her mother grew up in Holmdel, NJ, and completed a three-year nursing program after high school. She married and moved to a Pennsylvania dairy and sheep farm, had three children and adopted a fourth from an orphanage when he was 12.
“They were the most hardworking people you’d ever meet,’’ she said.
But by the time the family moved to rural Sullivan County in the early 1970s, Beth was drinking heavily. Still, she was able to work as a nursing supervisor and instructor, her daughter said. “It got progressively worse, but at the time it was not treated as a disease. There was no forward thinking going on out in the country... She was in and out of rehab,’’ and finally went into 12-step recovery through “a lot of family intervention.’’
Lang earned a master’s degree in social work, divorced, and by 1987 relocated to Miami.
In addition to taking on Better Way, Lang threw herself into Miami’s struggle to get a large homeless population off the streets. Ron Book, chairman of The Homeless Trust, said Lang helped raise “community consciousness,’’ which in turn made it possible to shrink a population of 8,000 homeless people to 800.
“Beth was beyond a pioneer,’’ said Book. “She was a true humanitarian and a leader. She helped us all understand things that none of us understood early on,’’ involving the interrelationship of mental illness, addiction, social instability, unemployment and homelessness. “She helped us ‘get it.’’’
Lang could never turn her back on a needy animal, Klinakis said, and accumulated a collection of rescue dogs.
Knowing that many clients would relapse, Lang embraced the Buddhist maxim: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,’’ her husband said. And if that teacher was someone or something other than Better Way, “she never took it personally. She taught me that you need to learn to love someone for where they are, not for where you want them to be.’’
In addition to her husband and daughter Betsy, Beth Lang is survived by sons Jerry Schalk, John Lang and Ned Lang; and stepson Paul Klinakis and stepdaughter Andrea Klinakis.
A viewing was held on Wednesday, September 21 at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Miami Shores. A funeral Mass at the church was held on Thursday, September 22, with burial at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery, 1500 S. State Rd. 7, North Lauderdale.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations are welcome to Better Way of Miami, Inc., 800 NW 28th St., Miami, FL 33127.