The mood that day at Serendipity II proved to be infectious. The substance abuse treatment program, founded in 2001, this March celebrated its Fifth Anniversary with a cake, balloons, honorees and an extravaganza of singing, dancing, skits and recitations by the female residents. At one point, a resident of Serendipity I, the men’s program just down the street, presented Facility Director Lisa Alexander with a huge bouquet of flowers. Then another male resident got up and serenaded the crowd, to the whoops and cheers of his fellow peers. Later, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery arrived and helped cut the cake, to great applause. After all, without her support sixteen years ago, neither Serendipity program would probably exist.
A more typical day in the forty-woman facility reflects the tough-yet- compassionate love that characterizes a Therapeutic Community (TC). Serendipity II is a residential treatment program for women who struggle with recovery from drug or alcohol abuse; most reside in the facility for nine to twelve months, moving through a series of phases as they prepare to reenter society. A TC provides a structured community in which a woman can wrestle through her personal demons with the help of others like her, and learn the practical skills needed to empower her recovery and become a caring, responsible adult.
The women here are a varied lot. A few are as young as eighteen, or as old as sixty. Some have no children, yet others have nine or more. A few have walked in off the street, though most are mandated by the courts, by probation, parole or another criminal justice agency. Some of the women have been in prison for a number of years. Each, though, has a unique story to tell.
One resident, Annette (all names are fictitious), began using drugs only in her late twenties, and then just with her friends on weekends. Eventually, though, she began using during the week, and consequently lost her job. Then, to support her habit, Annette began selling drugs, a plan that backfired when she became her own best customer. That left only one thing left to sell: herself. Too ashamed to be around her family, she refused to ask for help. One arrest, a release, and then she missed court dates because she was back selling drugs. It did not help that during this time she lost her brother. Finally, a judge mandated her to Serendipity II, and Annette had to face who she had become. Yet, this story has a happy ending. Today, Annette lives in Georgia and has an interior design job she loves.
Ruby, on the other hand, started smoking pot at twelve. At an age when she should have been going on sleepovers with friends, she began to cut school. As she admits, she became “everything I was raised not to be. In the twelve years of my addiction, not once did I have a thought to quit. At fourteen, it got worse when I ran away from home, and just lost all morals, self-respect and values. After about six months, I was at bottom; I had been raped, cut, robbed, kidnapped and abused, not once thinking that my addiction was the problem. A few months later, I was sent to a group home where I only got worse; now I knew a little about the streets, or so I thought. I ended up running away from there because I tried to sneak some boys in, but got caught. My low dropped even further; I was having sex with guys I didn’t know, just to have a place to stay.” By age 22, she had been jailed for drug trafficking, and finally sent to Serendipity II.
Ruby’s story illustrates many of the challenges facing women struggling with substance abuse, especially those in the criminal justice system. It has been estimated that 90% of such women have been sexually and/or physically abused during their life. Those who began taking drugs or alcohol early have never had a chance to grow up, much less obtain the needed education, job skills or work experience most of us take for granted. Unlike some men, most women in jail or prison experience incarceration as failure and humiliation. Developing self-esteem often seems like an impossible dream to women like Ruby.
Nonetheless, Serendipity II specializes in helping dreams to come true. Treatment does work, often enough that programs like Serendipity more than pay for themselves, both financially and in human terms. Perhaps one of the most rewarding sights is when a woman visits months after completing, her children in tow, for a happy reunion with her former peers. She has become a role model, not only for her children but also for those women coming after her. It’s not by accident that Serendipity II calls itself a family, of the very best kind. (For more information on Serendipity II: tel. 718-802-0572.)
The Serendipity Bed-Stuy Health Fair will be held on Saturday, September 16, 2006 at Herbert Von King (aka Tompkins) Park from 10 am-4 pm. TALENT SHOW, LIVE MUSIC, FREE RAFFLES, FREE MASSAGES, CLOWNS & FACE-PAINTING. To participate in the Fair, or in the Talent Show, call Peter Fry @ 212-971-6033.