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Healing Shattered Lives--and Families

COLUMN ONE : ORPHANS OF ADDICTION: Part 2

In unusual rehab program, women learn to be mothers--and their children learn to trust.

November 17, 1997|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

In a two-story apartment building in the core of Compton, something magical is happening.

Children are playing. Moms are cooking. Souls are healing.

"We're like the damn Brady Bunch," says Beatrice McClendon--amazing words from a woman who not so long ago was spending more time with her crack pipe than with her children.

Beatrice and dozens of other mothers have found redemption inside the 86-unit apartment complex known as Keith Village, where parents and children are taught to resume their respective roles, once warped by drugs.

Eleven-year-old Ladonna Grant used to care for seven younger siblings while her mother, Jacqueline, was chasing cocaine around the clock. Now, when Jacqueline asks her daughter to watch the kids for a few minutes, Ladonna says simply: "Uh-uh. I got to play now." She dashes outside for a date with a jump rope.

While such mother-daughter exchanges may seem unremarkable in most households, they are practically a miracle for the families at Keith Village--one of the nation's most novel and successful residential recovery programs.

Keith Village specializes in the toughest cases: long-term addicts, some of them third-generation substance abusers, each of whom has up to 10 children, many of them troubled.

The program's premise is that to make families whole, they must be mended as a unit through intensive counseling for mothers stunted by years of addiction and children brimming with anger from the neglect they endured.

On average, about 50 women and 250 children receive two years of treatment and may continue living in the facility another two years while they head into the working world.

About 40 graduates, whose chief job used to be scoring drugs, now work at AT&T, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the post office and elsewhere.

"There are incredible things that happen to families here," says Kathryn S. Icenhower, executive director of SHIELDS for Families Inc., the nonprofit organization that purchased and runs Keith Village. "We teach folks they can be whoever they want to be."

During individual and group counseling sessions, mothers dissect the painful events that have often fueled their addictions--physical abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the resulting low self-esteem. They also are coached on the more mundane, but wholly unfamiliar, details of daily survival: how to pay bills, run a household, do laundry.

The children, meanwhile, participate in their own counseling. From tots to teenagers, they discuss how to feel good about themselves, how to control their tempers and how to avoid becoming addicts, halting the ruinous cycle that has cost them and society so dearly.

"They won't become sitcom-perfect," senior child psychologist Donald Jackson says of the Keith Village youngsters. "We try to fertilize that natural resiliency children have. We bombard them with affection and consistency."

Some have rebounded so well they have become honor students. Even the littlest ones have rallied--to the degree they can.

Ronnie Simmons, 2, was nearly lifeless when he entered the world. His mother, Sheila, smoked crack daily during the latter part of pregnancy, following the death of her twin brother and after catching her husband of 14 years in bed with another woman.

Of the infant growing inside her, she says: "I was trying to kill him and me."

When Ronnie was born at home, it took 15 minutes for him to gulp any air, leaving his brain permanently damaged. For months, his voice box didn't work. When he cried, there was no sound.

Now Ronnie tries to pull himself up and flashes his mother a huge smile, a monumental breakthrough. Thanks to therapy, Ronnie no longer lies all day with his eyes rolled back. Today, he is a more physically active, verbal boy.

"He like a flower," his mother says. "He just blooming."

So is she.

'You Gotta Stop Being Selfish'

The fears women confront in the clarity of sobriety--and the deep understanding they get at Keith Village--are evident one Monday morning as 28 mothers sit in a circle around the living room of apartment No. 1736, the main meeting room for group sessions.

Counselor Rafik Philobos throws it open to discussion.

Hattie Wilson, 47, who has been abusing drugs for three decades, says she's having problems with one of her four sons, a hardheaded 12-year-old currently in the care of her sister. The boy irritates her, Hattie says, and she's not sure she wants him back. "I just want to shake him," she says.

"At some point you have to be a mama," one of the women says. "At some point you gotta stop being selfish."

Another woman--a mother of three with one more on the way--chimes in: "I ain't never been ready. But I have to do for these kids because no one else is going to do for them. I know I'm their mother. I laid down and had them babies."

Yet another ex-junkie, this one with seven children, says she is immensely thankful to have been reunited with five of her youngsters--for their sake and hers.

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