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Bertha Cuella, of Union City, is seen here at Terra Firma a drug, alcohol, and domestic violence rehabilitation center, in Hayward, Calif., on Tuesday, July 21, 2010. Cuella has been chosen as a Hometown Hero for her work at the center.(Anda Chu/Staff)

HAYWARD -- There's something to be said for knowing that your feet are planted firmly on the ground. It anchors you and gives you the confidence to succeed.

That's why Bertha Cuellar chose the name "Terra Firma" (Latin for "solid earth") for her drug, alcohol and abuse rehabilitation center when she started her program 20 years ago.

"We try to make people solid," said Cuellar, 56, of Union City. "People can change. Sometimes they just don't feel they have the support. ... People need to be given second chances, third chances."

Cuellar had been a project manager at Project Eden, a substance abuse recovery program in Hayward, for 14 years when she was laid off. At that point, she decided that services for Spanish-speaking clients were lacking in Alameda County.

So leaving the only place she had ever worked, Cuellar decided to go into business for herself.

Joining forces with a colleague, Cuellar opened Terra Firma, a bilingual operation, on July 1, 1990, in a tiny one-room office on Mission Boulevard near Sorenson Road. Each put in about $1,200 as seed money -- an amount that represented Cuellar's entire life's savings. Relatives and friends thought she was crazy.

"It was a risk, but I felt confident I could do it," Cuellar said. "It was always something I wanted to do -- to work with people."

In its formative years, Cuellar relied on the contacts she had established with probation officers during her years at Project Eden for referrals. She also went around town and to the courts, letting referral agencies and others who worked with recovering addicts know about her business.

As the program grew, Cuellar took full control of the business and relocated to a two-suite office farther south on Mission Boulevard.

Today, Terra Firma serves about 2,000 clients at a time, said Theresa Cuellar, Bertha's sister and the company's program manager.

Clients pay for services on a sliding scale. Those who can't afford the payments can work it off by performing tasks around the office. Cuellar said she's never turned away individuals because of inability to pay if they were willing to do volunteer work around the office.

In addition to counseling people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence, Terra Firma provides drug testing, anger management services and supervised visits with children.

Pati Hart, who worked with Cuellar on various events for most of the past two decades, said that what Cuellar has done is remarkable.

"She was a Hispanic, single woman, starting this program on her own. That was unbelievable," she said.

"She just doesn't give up on people. Even though (Terra Firma) is a business, people who go there know she really does care about them. They're not just handed off to somebody else. She knows everybody that walks into that place," Hart said.

Cuellar keeps an open-door policy.

"If one wants to talk to me, they're welcome to," said Cuellar, who likes to register people for the program herself in order to get to know her clients.

"I know a lot of these clients because I like to. For me, it's a sign of respect that you should know who comes through the door," she said.

Fremont resident Linda Nazar has been sober since September. The desire to not disappoint the staff at Terra Firma motivates her to not fall off the wagon.

"Here, you don't want to mess up because you're building all these relationships," she said.

Client Robert Vanprooyen, who takes public transit from Oakland, said he'd rather put up with the six-hour round-trip commute than go elsewhere. A recovering alcohol, methamphetamine and Vicodin addict, Vanprooyen, like Nazar, said having someone believe in him gives him a reason to better himself.

"(Cuellar) knows my potential. In the past, I only did what I had to do to get by," he said. "Now, I do more. She sees the growth."

Although supportive, the Cuellar sisters exemplify the concept of tough love, clients said.

"They're definitely caring, but they're tough. People like us -- addicts -- that's what we need," said Susan Burrell, a Fremont resident.

"They really care about you. You may not realize it at first when you get here because they're tough. But if they see you're making an effort and you truly want to change, they'll guide you," she said.

It's seeing clients like Nazar, Vanprooyen and Burrell change over time that inspires Cuellar to continue in her line of work, which she considers her calling.

Most inspiring are those who have been cast off by everyone -- including the individuals themselves -- and then turn their lives around, Cuellar said.

"The worst people you think aren't going to make it, make it," she said. "It happens a lot."