Dr. Sergio Rizzo Fontanesi sat quietly, with a recording device in hand. He had just stepped into an arena with former residents who had been sober anywhere from three to twenty years and felt like a true outsider. Suddenly, one of his research subjects told Sergio to turn off the recorder and to tell him his life story. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, Sergio thought. I’m the researcher, he’s the subject.”
But Sergio eventually relented and told the story of his life. “I felt as though it was normalizing and de-stigmatizing of my experience,” Sergio says. It was this baffling role reversal that started Sergio’s love and passion for Beit T’Shuvah.
If you have ever walked through the hallways of Beit T’Shuvah, there is no doubt you have noticed the mild-mannered, yet quietly dignified presence of its Director of Clinical Services, Dr. Sergio Rizzo Fontanesi. Sergio is supremely intelligent and kind-hearted, giving a sense of older-brother security to the many departments he now manages.
While he carries himself today with a polished dignity, Sergio grew up in a sometimes turbulent setting at home. His parents were never married and he recalls countless arguments about lawyers and visitation rights. On top of that, Sergio had to watch his mom’s sister struggle with, and eventually pass from ALS. There was a silver lining, though: his relationship with his grandfather. “He was the only male figure I had a relationship with growing up. He was old school, not very emotional, but I knew that he knew who I was and where I struggled. Even though he didn’t communicate that, that awareness was palpable. He saw me,” Sergio explains.
Before obtaining his Ph.D., Sergio went to community college in Marin County. He then transferred to SF State as a journalism major, but something felt wrong. “I hated it. Not sure why. I’ve always liked writing. Maybe I was intimidated. My grandfather always told me I would be a good psychologist and so one day, I walked across campus and changed my major to psych.” Just like that, he was on his journey to being the well-respected doctor we all adore. Finding himself deep in research assignments, Sergio had finally felt like he found his calling, and this confidence propelled him into attending graduate school. “I liked being around smart people and thought if I got a Ph.D. then I would be brilliant. Which is a lie, I’m not,” he says with a sly grin. The year before he graduated, he attended a summer internship in cognitive psych at NYU and decided he hated it. His passion was working with people, not stuck in a lab “It just wasn’t for me.”
And so he went through the motions, unsure of his next move. He became a teaching assistant to a woman named Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor in the social welfare department of UCLA. “She’s like the crazy aunt there. She drops the f-bomb, she challenges hierarchical norms and everyone adores her,” he explains. While he was a teaching assistant to a 300 student lecture class, Jorja made him teach a class. “I was scared but I loved doing it and wound up being her teaching assistant for the next three years,” he says. After he graduated from UCLA, Sergio began teaching research and human behavior at USC and continued working for Jorja. He enjoyed working for Jorja because her approach “wasn’t formalized. It empowered the people working with her. It wasn’t pretentious or top-down, it was more ‘check your ego at the door and learn.’” Her first assignment to Sergio was a 2-year evaluation of Beit T’Shuvah.
“My first response was ‘what the hell is this place?’” he says as he recalls his first impressions of Beit T’Shuvah when he arrived in 2015. However, he soon found, as many do, the separation between an addict and non-addict was very thin. “I was sitting in a [group therapy session], and I know this sounds cliché, but there weren’t a lot of differences. The underlying experience, of feeling like an outcast or outsider, was part of my own story from very early on,” he explains.
Sergio felt a certain kindred spirit in the way Beit T’Shuvah carries itself, in the misfits and outcasts striving to be better. “People have a perception of me that I’m really put together and quiet and have no problems but the truth is completely different. Deep down inside I really resonated with what I saw and heard here,” he explains. Sergio is also keenly aware of the similarities between his first mentor, Jorja, and his current one, Harriet. “Jorja is the Harriet of UCLA, except her group is gang members. Both are rebel spirits and both don’t conform,” he explains.
In 2017, his research came to an end, and there was a sadness inside Sergio—something was missing. He continued to work with Jorja on evaluating other non-profits as well as teach, but felt unfulfilled and trapped by norms, hierarchies, and structures. And so in January of 2018, he went to Warren Breslow, Beit T’Shuvah’s Executive Director, and asked for a job. He was invited to be part of a working group devoted to succession and strategic planning. He must have done something right because he was soon hired as Beit T’Shuvah’s Director of Clinical Services.
At first glance, Sergio doesn’t fit in here. He is a Ph.D., a non-addict, and not Jewish. But, as he explains, “I’ve always felt like a misfit and an outsider. The only difference is I found ways to express that pain without destroying my life.” He goes on to say that he could easily envision an alternate universe where he would have ended up a resident. So while he still maintains that he does not “fit in,” he feels, like many of us, that he belongs.