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May 5, 2008

One woman fights her way to sobriety and employment and teaches others to do the same

How United Way investments are helping people get back to work and out of the streets

Patricia Rivers-Barnes has lived through some incredibly difficult times. For nine years, she was addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine. She used drugs to escape loneliness, low self-esteem, sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Because of her drug use, she lost custody of her four children, the first of whom she gave birth to at age 15.

“I had a $300, or more, a day habit,” Patricia says. More than once, she tried to end her life.

One night, after Patricia spent all her family’s money on drugs, she walked into her house and saw her oldest son standing at the open refrigerator, searching for food. The look on his face convinced her that she was harming her children with her drug habit.

Patricia made the painful decision to free her children from her substance abuse by phoning DCYS and telling them about her addictions and her inability to care, protect and provide for her children.

“Before I used drugs I was a good mother. Now, I’m a good mother. I was a good mother then for calling DCF, for protecting my children, because I couldn’t,” Patricia says.

After a stay in prison, 10 failed attempts at finding sobriety at various treatment facilities and the subsequent troubling relapses, Patricia hit rock bottom. On December 6, 1997, she begged for assistance from a local mental health agency. It was only then that she found a good counselor and began to explore the secrets and traumas in her life and why she chose men who were abusive. Finally, Patricia began to recover.

Once off drugs, Patricia worked minimum wage jobs at a donut shop and a drug store, trying to save enough money for furniture and basic necessities. While working at the donut shop, Patricia noticed a customer that looked familiar. It was her counselor from the inpatient facility. The counselor was so impressed with her progress that she offered Patricia a job on the spot.

Patricia has now been sober for six years. She is a full-time case worker for The Connection, an agency that provides support services like drug treatment and mental health counseling to parents working to regain custody of their children from the Department of Children and Families. She has regained custody of her four “beautiful children” and is an integral part of the staff at The Connection because she can truly relate to clients, their addictions and crises.

“I have helped so many people by just being honest and sharing my story,” Patricia says. “I get so many letters from clients thanking me for helping them. A lot of them say my honesty helps them. I was homeless for the nine years of my addiction. I know what it’s like to be at the bottom.”

United Way of Greater New Haven invests in The Connection Inc.’s job training and placement program. Part of Patricia’s job is to help clients prepare for interviews with a good resume and proper dress. Together with The Connection’s Sharon Kupiec, clients learn to fax resumes and make effective and professional phone calls.

Patricia helps keep clients inspired by sharing the rewarding feeling she still gets every time she receives a paycheck. “When I got my first job and I received my first paycheck, I felt so good. I felt so important because I could say, ‘I’m going to work today.’ It meant so much that I could take care of myself. For so many years, I had to depend on men. When I could depend on myself, when I opened my first checking account, I was so happy.”

Patricia’s words are clearly resonating with The Connection’s clients. In a recent six-month period, the attendance rate at the job training program was 83 percent (up from 65 percent the previous year). Nine out of 15 clients have enrolled in a GED, trade school or college course. Ten out of 14 people have secured employment and 9 out of 10 of those people have stayed employed for three months or longer.

Patricia’s passion is to help people crawl back from the dark place she knows so well. “In my one-on-ones with clients, I try to get them to see that honesty is the best policy. If you don’t share your secrets, they will keep you getting high.” And she says that nothing compares to getting clean, getting back on your feet, and becoming self-reliant. Those paychecks still mean the world to her. They mean that she has succeeded, that she has bounced back from the depths and has become a healthy, productive, drug-free person. “When I get my paycheck, I’m happy. I know that I’m reliable. I’m dependable,” she says.

Patricia’s goal is to help others find their way to such happiness. “I try to tell people that there is hope out there. There really is hope.”

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