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She's Come a Long Way From Addiction, Streets

A woman who abused drugs for years before getting clean is now an advisor and role model for wayward teenagers referred by the courts.

September 05, 2004|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

Skid row is as vivid in her thoughts today as it was 15 years ago.

Back then, she would sneak into a dark alley, surrounded by the stench of the dumpsters she leaned against, and inject herself with heroin.

The scars on her arm won't let her forget.

Mary Santos, now director of substance abuse programs at Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services in Los Angeles, shares her story of living on the streets with dozens of teenagers referred to her by the courts.

She tells them of hiding along the Los Angeles River to sniff glue at the age of 12; taking LSD and methamphetamine at 21, shortly after the birth of her second child; snorting cocaine at 26; injecting heroin at 27, an addiction that ultimately drove her to theft and homelessness.

"Prison had become a home for me," said Santos, 52. But now she uses that experience to help others. "Everything that I've experienced," she says, "it's been my best asset."

Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services serves boys ages 12 to 18 as a "last stop" before prison. The 100-bed facility in Highland Park -- with its own arts program, mental health facility and high school -- is meant to help wayward teenagers rejoin society.

"These kids are multiple, multiple offenders," said Silvio John Orlando, executive director of the program.

The facility, which opened in 1906, has five dormitories, including one exclusively for gang members and convicted sex offenders, and two independent living facilities to teach teenagers how to hold jobs, pay bills and balance bank accounts.

Santos never went to a center like Optimist. Instead, she spent much of her 30s in a hotel room on skid row in downtown L.A. The five children she gave birth to lived with their grandmother or their father.

It wasn't until Santos was 38, when a fellow inmate suggested Narcotics Anonymous, that she found a life away from drugs.

"I've turned my whole world around," she said.

Now an avid artist and living in Alhambra, she has been drug-free for nearly 15 years. Instead of sneaking through alleys, she now gets to go home "and watch 'Peter Pan' " with her 14-year-old son.

"I am definitely on my second life," she said.

Youths assigned to Santos, many of them addicted to drugs because of their parents' own addiction, see her as a role model not just for themselves, but for their parents.

Every week, Santos holds support groups where teenagers like Robert, 16, try to understand where their dependence on drugs comes from. They gather in a circle and share their secrets with each other -- the ones Santos urges them to express.

"My darkest secrets will take me back to my old habits," Santos said. "My secrets are my worst enemy. If they can start dealing with that, they can start dealing with their core issues.

"Hear their stories," she said. "They're really not nice stories."

Robert is in Optimist for assault with a deadly weapon. He said he comes from a family of drug addicts and got his first taste of methamphetamines at 15.

Peter said he started using methamphetamines at 11. He's now 17. Peter said he would use the drug with his father, a drug dealer.

Oscar, 16 , said he comes from a family of alcoholics and became one himself at a young age.

Many of them say they look at Santos as the mother they've always wished for -- someone who was an addict but was able to survive. So each week, they gather and share their secrets.

At first, the exchanges were trivial.

"Did I tell you my mom got a car?" asked Derrick, 16.

"Yeah. She can't drive it?" Santos replied.


"Just like an addict -- buy a car but can't drive it."

The group laughed. But shortly after, the deep secrets started surfacing.

"Basically, my life is a roller coaster," Robert told the group. "When I begin to go up, those are my good days. And when I go down, there's no way to stop it."

Then another boy interjected a recurring worry: his parents' addiction.

"I'm afraid that my mom is going to die," he said. "I'm at that point that I want to start using [drugs]. It's hard for me to deal with it. I'm at that point where I don't want to be sober. I feel like I can hide my pain away."

That's where Santos' advice came in.

"Some people have to die to let others live," she told them. They all nodded as they looked to the floor. No one spoke.

Her colleagues say Santos is the perfect person to show young people that addiction can be overcome.

"When you get someone that's had a miserable life experience and conquered the problem, the kids see it can be done," said Orlando, the center's director. "Kids can really relate."

Every now and then, Santos still pays a visit to the streets of skid row.

She explained: "I drive down there to get grateful."

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