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Ex-heroin addict says pregnancy turned her life around

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 5:57 p.m.
In this April 15, 2013 photo, Erin Genther and holds her son, Owen, in Lancaster, Pa. Erin Genther's heroin addiction brought her to dangerous lows, none more harrowing than the nights she spent sleeping in abandoned buildings on a street known as 'Murder Drive.' The turning point finally came with a positive pregnancy test.

LANCASTER — Erin Genther's heroin addiction brought her to dangerous lows, none more harrowing than the nights she spent sleeping in abandoned buildings on a street known as “Murder Drive.”

Genther couldn't kick her 20-bag-a-day habit, even after three stints in rehab and a few months in jail.

The turning point came with a positive pregnancy test.

Genther's family and friends told her there was no way she could be a mother. Adoption was the baby's best chance.

But Genther's unborn baby provided powerful motivation to stay clean. She spent two years at Milagro House, a Lancaster program that provides housing and education for homeless women and children.

Genther is one of more than 1,000 residents who have stayed at Milagro House, which marks its 15th anniversary this year. She credits the program with helping her become who she is today: a mother of three, with a mortgage and a full-time job as a nurse.

“(Without Milagro House) I wouldn't have kept my daughter,” she says. “I wouldn't have gotten an education. I wouldn't have stayed clean.

“I wouldn't be alive, realistically.”

Genther, 30, grew up in a wealthy, two-parent home with a country club for a backyard. She dabbled in pot and cocaine as a student at Cumberland Valley High School.

“I didn't know what I was doing until it was too late,” she says.

One snowy day, Genther's dealer ran out of coke. He offered heroin instead. Genther loved the warm, comforting feeling that flooded her. She ended up shoveling snow in a T-shirt.

Before long, Genther would get physically sick if she didn't use heroin. She was able to function at school and her part-time jobs at McDonald's and Perkins. Her paychecks funded her burgeoning heroin habit.

In 2001, Genther graduated from high school — barely. Then her mom found out about her drug use and ordered her to rehab.

Three days later, Genther promised to stay clean and convinced her mom to pick her up.

She started using again that very night.

“(My mom) would say, ‘If you love me enough, you'll stay clean,' ” Genther says. “It isn't like that. I wanted to stop for her, but I just couldn't.”

Genther's mom eventually pressed charges against her for stealing checks. She hoped a few months in jail would help her daughter kick heroin.

After losing her mom to lung cancer, Genther went to rehab in Chicago, where her sister lived.

Finding drugs in a big city proved even easier and cheaper. A dealer hung out next door to the rehab, so Genther could buy drugs anytime she went outside.

In spring 2004, an aunt who had donated clothing to Milagro House took Genther there for a tour. Genther couldn't wait to move in. She called every day until a room opened up.

Despite the chore chart and initial 6 p.m. curfew, Genther was determined to stay in the program.

“If I couldn't follow (the rules), how would I be a productive member of society and not get arrested again?” she says.

Milagro House staff took Genther to doctor's appointments and childbirth classes. One even supported her during labor. Genther's daughter was born in July 2004. Although she was exposed to drugs early in her development, the baby was born healthy.

Genther completed a licensed practical nursing program in spring 2006. She moved out of Milagro House, and a Harrisburg-area nursing home hired her on the spot. She eventually bought a home in New Cumberland. She now works at a nursing home for patients on ventilators, while her boyfriend cares for their children at home.

Executive director Gail Rittenhouse says Genther's success story is just one example of Milagro House's life-changing power.

“Our program does work,” she says.

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