Column | One Person Can Change the Lives of Thousands

By Larry Moliterno

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Sometimes we underestimate the impact that one person can have on a community. But since September is National Recovery Month, we must recognize two men who made it possible for countless people in our community to receive help for their addictions.

Many people don’t realize that the roots of Alcoholics Anonymous began a short distance from the Mahoning Valley. In 1935, Ohio surgeon Robert Smith and Wall Street analyst William Wilson met in Akron for what would become the first AA meeting. Today, over 2 million Americans are active in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Neil Kennedy was a recovering alcoholic and had Dr. Smith, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, as his sponsor. In 1939, numerous individuals suffering from alcoholism drove to Akron to attend meetings led by AA co-founder Dr. Bob.

In 1947, a group of citizens, led by Neil Kennedy, founded the Youngstown Committee on Alcoholism. This group funded the first nonprofit, freestanding residential treatment clinic in the nation, and asked Kennedy to be its first director.

Kennedy soon became a pioneer for the treatment of alcoholism. In 1948, Parade magazine published an article on Youngstown’s new clinic, which inspired calls from all over the country asking how to start similar programs.

The Youngstown Committee on Alcoholism honored its founder in 1992 by changing its name to the Neil Kennedy Recovery Center. Over many years, the clinic provided residential and outpatient treatment, prevention programs and recovery housing, and participated in the Mahoning County Drug Court.

NKRC also established the local recovery meeting place known as Fellowship Hall. To this day, dozens of 12-step meetings occur there each week, supporting people in recovery.

While discussing the great work by the NKRC, it’s important to recognize Jerry Carter, who served as executive director from 1972 to 2014. Jerry’s commitment, compassion and empathy were contagious. He influenced many people who have worked – and continue to work – in the recovery field.

The clinic became part of Gateway Recovery and closed in 2022. To meet the needs of the community, Meridian HealthCare expanded its detox and residential programs and hired many NKRC employees.

The work done by Neil Kennedy eventually led to another advancement in the local treatment field through Judge Joseph Donofrio.

Donofrio came to the United States from Italy at age 4 and graduated from East High School on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and served as a radio operator in the South Pacific. In 1955, Donofrio began his law practice and was elected to the Youngstown Municipal Court in 1965.

Donofrio recognized that incarceration was not always the solution for individuals struggling with addiction. In 1966, he started a court-ordered class in which people arrested for intoxication could agree to seek help through Alcoholics Anonymous. This may have inspired Judge John Durkin to develop the highly successful Mahoning County Drug Court, which upholds the same values held by both Kennedy and Donofrio.

Judge Donofrio was also instrumental in establishing a program in Mahoning County for people dealing with alcoholism and, through this program, opened the Donofrio Home halfway house in 1968. The Donofrio Recovery Centers continue their work now as a part of Meridian HealthCare.

As a local organization with 50 years of service, Meridian HealthCare is honored to continue the legacy and vision that these men had for the compassionate care of individuals suffering from addiction.

It’s impossible to measure how many lives have been saved by the work of these men. In those times when we ask ourselves, “Can I really make a difference?” remember Neil Kennedy and Joseph Donofrio.

Larry Moliterno, is CEO of Meridian Healthcare.