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Work: Juanita Koonitsky, Counselor for problem gamblers, Wallingford


Published October 17, 2007 at 6:07 p.m.

Juanita Koonitsky - JORDAN SILVERMAN

Five days a week, you can bet on finding Juanita Koonitsky at Serenity House, a substance-abuse treatment center in Wallingford. While living in Connecticut, Koonitsky struggled with her own addiction to alcohol; she became sober 22 years ago and has been counseling substance abusers nearly ever since. In 2002, the 60-year-old grandmother of five moved to Castleton. This August, she became the first - and only - person in Vermont certified by the American Compulsive Gambling Counselor Certification Board.

That credential has allowed Serenity House - which also operates a halfway house and a residential detox center in Rutland - to expand its services to problem gamblers. It's a sensible addition, says Koonitsky, who reports that about 25 percent of alcoholics also have a gambling problem. Recently, Seven Days talked straight with Koonitsky about gambling in the Green Mountains.

SEVEN DAYS: I understand you've been following problem gambling since the 1980s.

JUANITA KOONITSKY: Yeah, I got interested when there was all the hoopla in Connecticut about Foxwoods Casino. I've never had a gambling problem. I have a couple of good friends who do have a gambling problem. I started going to trainings at Connecticut Valley Hospital, and then came to Vermont and wanted to get my certification. It was tough, because Vermont really doesn't recognize that they have a problem up here, and there aren't many trainings you can go to.

SD: Before becoming a counselor, did you gamble at all?

JK: Oh, I would buy a ticket if I had an extra dollar. One time I even won $4000. Ha! But that didn't encourage me to buy more tickets.

SD: What kinds of problems did your friends have?

JK: They still do. One friend probably goes 25 times a year to Foxwoods, Atlantic City, Reno; she goes on cruises and will spend a good portion of her time at the casinos on the ship. One time she talked me into going to Atlantic City. We walked in; she put a quarter in, she won $250. By the end of the day, she was out that and $250 more.

SD: What kinds of problems does Vermont have?

JK: The primary one is the instant tickets. There's a girl who'll play $400 a week - her whole paycheck, every week, and it's all the scratch-off. I'll stop at the store, and the person in front of me will want six of these and 10 of these and 20 of these. And bingo. They have such high stakes, and people have a compulsion that they have to go to Bingo three times a week.

SD: How can someone recognize a gambling problem?

JK: The easiest is when the house is mortgaged to the hilt and their savings account is depleted. Or with mood changes: if they get upset because the kids are talking, and the game - baseball, basketball, soccer, football - is starting, and they have money on the game. And teenagers have started to have excessive problems on the Internet. That's one of the biggest growing gambling populations around, because they have no idea this isn't play money.

SD: What are some of the most unusual things you've heard of people betting on?

JK: Well, that football player who just got arrested.

SD: Michael Vick. Are any weird bets going on in Vermont? Like when the peak foliage will be?

JK: I'm sure. They bet on when the ice is going to break in some pond, so I'm sure there are a couple of pools going about the peak foliage.

SD: What if my finances are OK; what are other warning signs?

JK: Going to pick up 10 scratch tickets, or if you go three times a week to pick the PowerBall. My son always has to get about 20 of whatever the new scratch tickets are.

SD: What do you do in a situation like that?

JK: First, you tell them that all this money they say is going to education is only after they take their cut [for gambling]. Then you put it before them: "You play three days a week, $20 a day; that's $60 a week times 52 weeks times - you've been playing how long? - six years. What would you have done with that money?" And you're more likely to get struck by lightning than win big. But, unfortunately, gamblers are like drug addicts: They have an unrealistic outlook on life.

SD: What kinds of questions do you ask problem gamblers?

JK: When did they start gambling - two years ago, or when they were a teenager? Generally, men have been gambling a lot longer. Women aren't as apt to put $5 on a sports game or $10 on the game when they're teenagers. Usually women are more responsible when they're younger; they don't get involved until they are retired, or their husband has left them, or the kids are out of the house - empty-nest syndrome. There was one woman who maxed out 10 credit cards and she was making $150,000 a year, so I'm sure she had $50,000 on each one. She had cleaned out her IRA and all that.

SD: How long does the counseling typically take?

JK: Usually within six to eight weeks of outpatient counseling, you can pretty much get them started. They have to put together financial sheets and call all their creditors and go through a commercial credit service so they can work out a plan to pay each of their creditors per month. As long as they have access to the money, they'll keep gambling.

SD: And then, no more gambling - no lottery tickets, no Bingo?

JK: They can't even say, "I bet Jack will be late today." They have to start to change their language.

SD: Have you ever been to Vegas?

JK: I went to Vegas to get married. I probably gambled a roll of quarters.