Margaret Diehl, 89, a founder of Seabrook House addictions treatment center

o-jdiehl30-a
Margaret Diehl

Margaret Diehl, 89, cofounder of Seabrook House, an addictions treatment center in Cumberland County, N.J., died Saturday at Seashore Gardens Living Center in Galloway Township, N.J., of heart disease.

Mrs. Diehl, known as "Peg," was the driving force behind Seabrook, which opened in 1974 in Upper Deerfield Township.

She cofounded it with her husband, Jerry, whose drinking had threatened to destroy their family in the 1960s. He became sober in 1968 and served as president of Seabrook until his death in 1989.

"It was my mom's dream to try to help other struggling families come out of the shame and embarrassment of having alcoholism in their families," said son Ed, who succeeded his father as president of Seabrook. "That's what she devoted her life to."

Seabrook became an anchor for those in recovery and their advocates. It was one of the first residential rehabilitation centers to focus on holistic family treatment.

In a 2014 interview with the Inquirer, Mrs. Diehl said she learned firsthand that families need support as much as their loved ones who are struggling with an addiction.

"I had been told I needed help after my husband got sober, and I did. I was pretty messed up," she recalled.

When his father, who was "a brilliant student at Wharton," ended up delivering milk in Atlantic City, Margaret Diehl kept the family together, Ed Diehl said.

The couple launched Seabrook from the kitchen table in their Ocean City home. Mrs. Diehl insisted that their program educate and counsel family members - a component that helped the couple obtain a federal demonstration project grant that got Seabrook off the ground, their son said.

At the time, there were no such programs in South Jersey, said Rebecca Flood, who joined Seabrook in 1978 as a social service worker. It began as a building with beds for 12 patients.

"They were a dynamic team and a force to be reckoned with back in the day," said Flood, who now runs New Directions for Women, a treatment facility in Costa Mesa, Calif. "They helped forge what addiction treatment looks like today."

In the 1990s, Seabrook created a program, Matri-Ark, that sought to help addicted women who faced losing custody of their children. It let their children live with them on the campus while the women underwent treatment.

Today, Seabrook has a campus with nine buildings, including detox and long-term residential treatment, in Upper Deerfield. It also has facilities in Cherry Hill, Northfield, Morristown, and Freehold that employ about 240 people. Each year, about 1,500 people are treated.

Over the years, treatment at Seabrook has evolved to include mindfulness meditation, equine therapy, and yoga. But the core mission remains abstinence from alcohol and drugs through the 12 steps pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the 2014 Inquirer article.

Flood, who spent 26 years at Seabrook, moving up the ranks to vice president of treatment services, credited Mrs. Diehl as a mentor and surrogate mother. The two shared a passion for shopping, and because they wore the same shoe size, 8, Mrs. Diehl often would purchase two pairs of the same shoe - one for herself and one for Flood.

"For years I never bought shoes," said Flood, who serves on Seabrook's board of directors. "Not only did I literally walk in her shoes, but I now walk in her shoes, because she taught me so much."

After 36 years at Seabrook, Mrs. Diehl retired in 2010, largely because macular degeneration began to compromise her eyesight. She continued to attend a weekly support group she started 50 years ago for family members of alcoholics until her health failed, Flood said.

"She was just amazing. She loved every day of it," said Ed Diehl.

One of six children, Mrs. Diehl was born and raised in Philadelphia. She graduated in 1943 from Little Flower High School for Girls at age 16.

She married in 1950 and the couple first lived in Jenkintown with their children. They moved to Ocean City in 1961.

In addition to her son, she is survived by sons Richard, Jerome, and Robert; two brothers; two sisters; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A viewing and Funeral Mass will be on Friday, Dec. 2, beginning at 10 a.m., at St. Damien's Roman Catholic Church, 13th Street and Wesley Avenue, Ocean City, followed by a luncheon and celebration of life at noon at the Flanders Hotel, 11th Street and Boardwalk, Ocean City. Interment will be private.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Seabrook House Foundation's Matrix Family Program, 133 Polk Lane, Seabrook, N.J. 08302.

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney