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New Ken program offers way for ex-addicts to help others in need

Madasyn Czebiniak
| Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, 1:09 a.m.
Habitat for Humanity volunteers Bryan Hilliard, 33, right, and Drew Simmers, 28, both of Kittanning, work at clearing a landing for porch steps at 249 Main St. in the Parnassus section of New Kensington on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Habitat for Humanity volunteers Bryan Hilliard, 33, right, and Drew Simmers, 28, both of Kittanning, work at clearing a landing for porch steps at 249 Main St. in the Parnassus section of New Kensington on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.

Georgean Ware had no idea that the men and women who came to her New Kensington home more than a week ago to fix and paint some steps were in substance abuse recovery.

She found out when she checked Facebook a day later.

Her reaction?

She thought it was great.

"You never know what could happen to anybody in one day," the 60-year-old said. "To be given the opportunity of the second chance, I just think it's very awesome. We're all human."

The eight people who volunteered their time to spruce up Ware's Main Street home work with Strokes of Change, a program that connects people recovering from addiction with low-income people to help with home repairs.

It's a collaboration between two New Kensington-based nonprofits: Habitat for Humanity Allegheny Valley and Lost Dreams Awakening.

Habitat for Humanity is a global organization that helps people build homes. Lost Dreams Awakening is a local organization that helps those in long-term addiction recovery.

"In the midst of this opioid epidemic, all you hear about is death," said VonZell Wade, co-creator of Lost Dreams Awakening. "But there's a lot of recovery happening out there, too.

"We thought Strokes of Change would be an excellent way to really show that people can — and do — recover."

The program began in May. It takes place Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Participants do minor home repair work or work at Habitat's ReStore, which resells donated goods in Parnassus.

A dozen homes fixed so far

So far, volunteers have done repairs on about a dozen homes throughout New Kensington and Arnold.

At the Ware residence, they focused their efforts on two sets of outdoor steps, one in the front and one in the back. Ware said the steps out front were unsafe.

"You couldn't put your foot on the very bottom one," Ware said.

She said she reached out to Habitat for Humanity for help because she couldn't afford to fix the steps on her own. She did the same thing a few years ago when her house needed to be painted.

Ware said the volunteers replaced the bottom front step leading up to her house, painted her top front step, and redid the backyard steps.

"It was a blessing," she said.

Volunteer Bryan Hilliard, 33, of Kittanning likes that the program has put him in touch with others who have similar goals.

A recovering heroin addict, Hilliard said his old friends and neighborhood enabled his addiction. Now, he has friends who support him, making it easier to steer clear of the drug.

"Having a positive relationship with these people (has) gotten me way further in 114 days than in 10 years," said Hilliard, who has been clean since April 17. "Since I've been involved with this program, the empathy and the real respect and the love that I've been shown made it easier for me to be a better person. I've never been treated like that before."

Creating a sense of purpose

John Tamiggi is executive director at Habitat for Humanity Allegheny Valley. Tamiggi has known Wade for a number of years and helped register Wade's organization as a nonprofit.

Tamiggi said he and Wade came up with Strokes of Change when he went on a tour of Wade's Eighth Street facility a year and a half ago. He said he liked what Wade was doing and thought it would be good to work with him on something that could benefit the community.

"We ultimately believed that such efforts would vanguard not only community revitalization, but create genuine purpose and meaning in the life of the recovery participant," Tamiggi said.

Neil Capretto, the medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation, said the program could definitely play a role in the recovery process.

Capretto, who is not affiliated with Strokes of Change, said people with addictions demonstrate self-centered behavior. They are so focused on feeding their addiction they don't tend to think about others.

This program, he said, can give people the opportunity to get out of that mindset. It can also build their confidence.

"People's self-image and self-esteem become very low during their addiction, because they have frequently broken their own code of conduct and feel terrible about themselves," Capretto said. "This program gives them the opportunity to help disadvantaged people. That very likely will make them feel better about (themselves) and help their self-image, which will make it more likely that they will continue on their journey of recovery."

From addict to mentor

Chris Andring acts as a mentor to those who participate in Strokes of Change. He said the program is beneficial for people in recovery because it keeps them busy and puts structure back in their lives.

"It's hard, especially when you've been in that lifestyle for years and years," said Andring, also a former addict. "It's easy to be off drugs while you're being tested and under a microscope through the courts every day. The real part is after that."

"It gives them a chance to just get out of where they were."

Wade said the program also helps them become more sustainable and hone in on "soft skills," like showing up for work on time.

Volunteer work is also appealing to future employers, especially for those recovering from substance abuse who may have gaps in their employment history.

"When people get clean, there's certain things you have to do to sustain," Wade said. "You have to seek out some type of employment. One day, they're going to own a home of their own. In most cases these individuals have had things and lost them due to addiction."

Wade has hopes that the program will evolve to include other Alle-Kiski Valley communities like Springdale, Tarentum and Brackenridge.

"I would like to see this grow," he said.

Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702, mczebiniak@tribweb.com or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.

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