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In Recovery

A grassroots program at a North End health center is salvaging lost lives

Daniel D'Ambrosio

February 23, 2010

Like a North Sea fisherman, Ernie wears a black sock hat perched on top of his head. He has thick-framed glasses, and remarkably smooth skin for a man of 57.

"My name's Ernie, as everybody know," he begins.

The group of about a dozen men and two women sitting around the conference table on the third floor of the Community Health Services building on Albany Avenue watch and listen. Next Ernie asks himself the first question on a sheet of paper provided to him by George Dillon. Dillon, 56, who sits at the head of the table, runs the AMIR (African Males in Recovery) program.

"How did your addiction impact your life before recovery?" says Ernie. "That's a long story. My addiction spans 25 to 30 years. There was some clean time during that time but very few. Most of that time I was actively using. I lost jobs, I lost a lot of material things: vehicles, apartments. No house at that time but I probably would have lost that too."

But that's not all.

"Big thing I lost, a relationship," says Ernie. "I don't think it was the total reason but if I wasn't actively using I feel I would have had a better chance to save it."

Ernie's drug was cocaine. He did a couple of stints in rehab and was in prison twice.

"I'm blessed I did less than two years. It could have been a lot more," he says. "I still didn't see the signs, just kept jumping around the issue. I'm working so I'm OK. I'm not using heroin so I'm OK. I'm not shooting needles, I'm not that bad."

After his first wife of 11 years, also a user, divorced him and left with their two children, the drugs "took off like NASA," says Ernie, who didn't want his last name used. His first stint in prison from 2000 to 2001 brought partial change but he still tried to "sneak through with excuses."

"A little hit here and there, a little drink here and there, not knowing I was keeping the monster awake," he says.

In 2007, Ernie was busted with marijuana. He had been recently re-married.

"Somebody called probation and they came to my job, went through my truck, my ashtray like I was a big drug dealer," he says. "Then they took me to my house and humiliated me more. My wife had had surgery and was laying on the couch. I felt so much anger I could have hurt someone."

Ernie lied to probation officers when asked if he was dirty.

"All I knew about the police and judicial system, they tell you [they're] not going to do anything but when you fess up you still get hit in the head," he says.

He did nine months in prison. But when he came out, he says, he "stumbled on" CHS and the AMIR program.

"I pushed a lot of family away but I found a family here, people who really cared," Ernie says. "They were always there. It helped me to reestablish my self-esteem."

George Dillon is seen as something of a miracle worker by Judge Raymond Norko of Hartford's Community Court, where a steady stream of petty burglars and dope smokers are given the chance to enter the AMIR program if Dillon gives them the nod. Norko says Dillon rehabilitates repeat offenders he thought were well past the point of redemption.

"AMIR is dynamite," says Norko. "I've seen guys you would write off with records as long as your arm, come in here smiling and clear-headed."

It was just eight years ago that Dillon got clean himself, at a rehab program in Stonington. After years of using cocaine and crack cocaine he had pissed away the only other job he ever loved, as a Hartford firefighter from 1980 to 1989.

"Work becomes a lot less important to you, you don't show up, you forget what days you were supposed to be at work or you need to leave early for some stupid reason," says Dillon.

At Stonington, a counselor told Dillon he would make a good counselor himself, so he entered a training program offered by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction. Part of the deal was to get some work experience, which led Dillon to CHS, where he was eventually hired in 2004.

Mike Sherman, chief executive officer of CHS, took it on himself to keep the AMIR program up and running last year after federal funding was cut and two other nonprofit agencies co-sponsoring the program "flew out of here like nobody's business." He moved money around in his $14 million budget, and found about $200,000 for AMIR.

"[Hartford is] the second-poorest city in America, and I would argue you got to work to be the second-poorest city," says Sherman. "By that I mean we don't have enough successful collaboration between entities. [AMIR] is a perfect example of a community court and CHS working together beautifully and producing the right outcome, getting guys into programs like this, staying out of prison, recovering their lives and being good community citizens."

Sherman calls CHS one of 14 federally qualified health centers in Connecticut and one of 1,200 around the country the answer not only to the North End's otherwise absent health care infrastructure, but also to the nation's overall health crisis.

All but $500,000 of the CHS budget comes from a $3 million direct grant from the federal government, plus Medicare and Medicaid payments. The missing half million has to be fundraised each year. CHS takes care of 17,000 people annually with more than 80,000 visits for everything from getting cavities filled to delivering babies. And of course, counseling for mental health and substance abuse problems.

"You make it to the front door and we're going to care for you regardless of whether you have insurance or not," says Sherman. "We're a free clinic every day, and not enough people know about it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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