Youth, Revisited

At 17, Omar never thought he’d be chasing sobriety.

His high school sophomore year was heady. He began smoking weed and drinking beers. It seemed fun. It felt manageable — almost like a rite of passage. Lot of his friends were doing it. He was a standout on his suburban high school’s baseball team. A starting catcher. His mom was a teacher and his dad a roofer. He had a younger brother who idolized him.

Then, wild mood swings became an unwelcome, uncontrollable compass in his life. There were some days he felt like he was riding rainbows. Then, others when he couldn’t get out of bed. Omar began missing school on those days. They came faster and harder.

He got booted from the baseball team — his social anchor — for missing school and letting his grades slide. Adrift without the sport he believed defined him, he smoked more weed, began selling it, and experimenting with other substances. He suddenly found himself solidly in the grip of drugs and booze.

Omar sometimes disappeared from his home for days. If he thinks hard about it now, those were lost days. He couldn’t recount them hour by hour. Or, even day by day. This makes him sad and bewildered.

“I was self-medicating. I was making money. At the time it all felt like a great solution. Until it wasn’t. The summer, pretty much all of 2018, was a ‘run.’ It was rocky,” Omar said during a recent interview at CHD’s Goodwin House for adolescent boys in Chicopee.

The program is named after CHD’s President and CEO, Jim Goodwin, and opened in 2017 as a 90-day program in response to a void of residential substance abuse treatment programs for teen boys. This, despite multiple studies and statistical reports flagging adolescent boys as among the most vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction.

“This is the only residential addiction program in Western Massachusetts for boys 13 to 17. We focus on therapy and self-help. We connect them with Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous programs. That’s not easy to do when you’re that young,” program director Chantal Silloway said.

Outside of baseball speak, a “run” is not a good thing. It’s a phrase for a tear leading up to or amid addiction. An extended period of drug or alcohol use; a term that is emblematic of being truly out-of-control.

2018 was Omar’s run.

“I failed nearly every class I took junior year,” he said.

His family tried everything. They shipped him to a farm school in Virginia with only a few students. He was ejected for vaping and deliberately eating a poisonous flower, he said. There were hospitalizations. Substance abuse placements. Doctors. Prescriptions.

Omar’s very young reality came to a breaking point. He chose Goodwin House.

“I decided I’d stick it out here. Do something right for once,” he said. “The staff has been incredibly helpful. They’re supportive. It almost makes me afraid to think of where I would be without this program.”

He has been attending a sober high school in Springfield and will shortly go home. Sober. His choice is to attend a similar school in Eastern Massachusetts and play baseball at his alma mater. Crouched down. Waiting for the pitch. Sober.

“I never realized how smart I was sober,” Omar said. “I’ll graduate with my class, which I never saw happening a year ago.”

If you or a loved one would like to know more about CHD’s addiction recovery services, visit CHD.org

CHD Staff Going Above and Beyond: At a higher altitude

It’s a sunny, cold day in late November. Skies are blue but the wind whipping off the water at the Quabbin Reservoir is unforgiving and lashes their cheeks. Some of the boys are reasonably dressed for the hike ahead of them. Others are not, though they have been counseled. They quicken their steps out of necessity. Bob J. loves the outdoors. He launched a program many years ago to try to convince the boys in CHD’s Community Adolescent Treatment Program in Springfield to love it too.

Sometimes it catches fire. Jraeaswec says alumnus of the CATP program have told him his emphasis on outdoor exercise has served as spontaneous smoking and drug cessation exercises. He has seen them gain endurance, grow physically stronger and pursue higher peaks on these hikes. Others even report they have carried on the outdoor tradition with their own children years after they have left juvenile justice behind, Jraeaswec says.

It is always the boys’ choices whether they pile into the van to join the hikes or not. No one is forced. Though, they good-naturedly complain today. 

“Bob J., hold up, man!” they call. Though he is decades their senior, he is the pace-setter.

Jraeaswec and his ever-rotating groups of young charges have been on many hikes at the Quabbin and other natural venues across Western Massachusetts: sometimes through rougher terrain; sometimes they follow the easier paths, like today.

Today’s hike includes breathtaking views and peaceful vistas. They pause at various spots along the river through gauntlets of trees in the winter-barren forest and ask Bob J. about the fishing to be had. It is also an interest of his. He tells the boys about fly-fishing. Maybe they should try it someday.

“It sounds corny, but the best way to get to know someone is to go for a walk. There are very few distractions,” Jraeaswec says. 

In this particular group of four boys, an 18-year-old nicknamed “Meech” is the clear leader. He had a rough upbringing with little guidance and became ensnared in the juvenile justice system as a young adolescent. 

Meech takes advantage of most activities the program offers, but is particularly fond of the hikes. The hiking program falls outside the typical extracurricular programs most juvenile justice programs offer including basketball courts, standard outings, reading rooms, and common areas with games, televisions and the like. 

“Before this, I don’t think I hit a sidewalk without shackles for two, maybe three years,” he says.

The program on Worthington Street feels the most homelike in a long time, Meech adds.

Jraeaswec says Meech is like many of the boys who arrive there — untapped talents, untapped leadership potential. They look for someone to expect the best of them. 

Even on this day at the Quabbin, with the shivering and the punishing winds, they come to a crossroads of sorts. They can take a meandering, paved path back to the car or charge up a dauntingly steep hill.

They all choose the hill, breath heaving, when they reach the top.

From Hurricane Maria, to homelessness, to independence

When Julio Cruz’s home in Puerto Rico was wiped out by Hurricane Maria in 2017, he and his family were forced to live on a basketball court in the outdoors for nearly a week.

He, and his wife and two children were among the earliest evacuees off the devastated island. The Cruzes traveled to live with his sister in western Massachusetts temporarily. He had just $2,000 in his pocket, the clothes on their backs and little else.

Trying to rebuild a life on the mainland extended far beyond their limited financial means. Cruz’s wife fell ill with a chronic brain condition and their plans quickly collapsed. They became homeless.

“I couldn’t believe what our lives had become, that quickly. We lost everything. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do,” Cruz said recently.

He sought help from a local social service agency, which referred Cruz and his family to the Center for Human Development to connect them with safe, emergency housing. Their journey out of homelessness started at the agency’s Diversion, Shelter and Housing program in Palmer.

They family moved into a furnished, two-bedroom unit.

“What struck me from the first day I met Julio was how grateful he was. He thanked us every single day he was there,” program supervisor Datsy Aponte said.

She added that Cruz was quick to offer help with clean-up and odd jobs around the complex, and was a regular presence on the basketball court and playground with his children. Once his wife’s medical problems stabilized and his children were settled in school, he began looking for work in earnest.

“I told him to meet me at my office one day, bring a resume, even it was handwritten, and I would help him start looking for a job. I’ve made those offers to clients before and some haven’t even shown up for the meeting. Julio came early,” Aponte said with a laugh.

Included in his job hunt was a series of applications for positions within CHD. Cruz had worked a maintenance and security job in Puerto Rico, and there was an opening in the maintenance department there. Cruz applied and was called for an interview. Then, he was invited in for a second.

“They offered me the job on that second day. And I’ll be honest, I cried,” he said. 

Cruz has been a full-time employee for CHD since November and his family recently moved in to a market rate apartment in Monson. He said they enjoy the quiet community and he is thrilled to have regained his independence.

“He’s such a good guy. And he went from being my client to part of the CHD family,” Aponte said.