When he immigrated to Canada from Germany at the age of 18, John Volken says, he had less than $100 in his pocket. He started at the bottom, working as a labourer on farms and construction sites and as a dishwasher. Eventually, he opened a secondhand furniture store, which grew into massively profitable business. The United Furniture Warehouse generated annual sales of more than $200 million, turning him into a millionaire many times over.
In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Volken noted that some wealthy people choose to donate money to sporting activities or arts and culture. He, on the other hand, decided to help drug and alcohol addicts. After selling his company in 2004, he sank approximately $100 million into the John Volken Foundation, which funds an addiction-treatment centre in Surrey called Welcome Home. “Making money was fun,” he said reflectively. “Doing Welcome Home is satisfying. You know, I work harder than ever before. It’s emotional.”
Prior to selling his company, he visited recovery centres in Europe and the United States to learn more about this area. On these trips, he concluded that the “most successful therapeutic communities in the world” retain their clients for a minimum of two years. Volken said that people can overcome the physical addiction of drugs or alcohol in three or four weeks. But he maintained that a person with a substance-abuse problem requires up to five years in treatment to turn his or her life around and achieve lifetime sobriety.
“We want to get to the cause of the addiction,” he said.
Volken designed Welcome Home with this in mind. The “students”, as they’re called, live long-term in a therapeutic community for free after paying a $387 registration fee. There’s a nearby 60,000-square-foot store, called PricePro, that sells groceries and household goods, including furniture. The retail outlet helps recovering addicts learn life, job, and social skills, with the proceeds funding Welcome House.
“We teach all aspects of successful living: vocational training, but also hygiene and leadership,” Volken declared. “We put a lot of emphasis on leadership. Many of our students never exerted themselves in any way at all.”
When asked why he decided to focus his attention on addicts, he replied that it stemmed from his Christian beliefs. He cited a passage from Matthew: “Inasmuch as you have done it for the least of My brothers, you have done it unto Me.”
“A drug addict needs help,” Volken said. “He cannot do it on his own.”
He added that this extends to offering financial assistance to people who graduate from the program. According to Volken, they each receive $3,000 upon completion, which they can use to set themselves up in an apartment and find a job. “We set them up for life.”