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Orlando Sentinel

Hogar CREA: A Struggle To Stay Clean, To Save Souls

Myriam Marquez

December 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

The men bake sweet flan for the soul. They sell the caramel custard after Sunday church services and go door to door in Orlando neighborhoods where the name Hogar CREA is as common as San Juan or Bayamon.

They wash cars on weekends, cook and deliver meals around town, clean up trash after street festivals. They do all of it in search of a way out of the darkness of their addictions, to build character, change destructive ways and get to the core of what led them astray.

It's not a quick fix to replace the old fix of dope up the vein or snow up the nose. The men know it's a lifelong struggle to stay clean, to save their very souls.

"Treatment's not easy," Edwin Moran, 26, told me while sitting in the sparse dining room of one of Hogar CREA's residential treatment centers. Just one block from Colonial Drive near downtown Orlando, the home has enough bunk beds in three tidy bedrooms for 15 men. "Not everyone can adapt to this. They don't want to understand that they bring bad habits that aren't conducive to recovery, and they have to face up to that."

Facing up begins with a 21Ú2-year residential program that's built on the recovering addicts' sweat labor and contributions from people who put their faith in God's grace to help others. Surely, Hogar CREA is what President Bush means when he stumps for his faith-based initiative.

For now, the Orlando program doesn't get a dime from government, even though the work the Christian-based program is doing to keep people out of prison saves taxpayers loads.

CREA's Spanish acronymn stands for Community for the Re-Education of Addicts. Started by Jose Juan Garcia Rios, who battled his own addiction demons in Puerto Rico, the program has grown to treat more than 51,000 addicts over 31 years, with 28,000 successfully completing the program. That's pretty good odds, considering that kicking a habit like cancer-causing cigarettes can take several tries over many years.

Garcia's son, Javier, who oversees the Orlando operations, says the community support has been terrific. No one pays a fee to get treatment. It's a strict, tiered program in which those who have been there, in the depths of despair, help lead the others up. Many started drinking, smoking pot as young as 12 or 13 and bottomed out using heroin and cocaine.

With programs in several states, Latin America and now three homes for 48 men in Orlando, Hogar CREA is opening a women's residential facility here next year. It welcomes anyone willing to travel the hard road of recovery, regardless of race or ethnicity. Doctors, psychologists and others donate their time, and volunteer boards at each home ensure that average expenses of $5,000 -- for rents, utilities, and all the rest -- are covered each month.

The men start each day at 6:30 a.m with prayer and therapy sessions after breakfast. Their daily critiques of each other's weaknesses, the midday hour-long prayer and meditation, the weekly family therapy -- all of it is designed to empower with humility.

Samuel Nieves knows how hard it can be. He is on his third trip back to Hogar CREA, having first kicked heroin in 1980. The 40-something, recovering addict talks about his obligation to his wife and children, the pain he caused them during his last fall from grace. Now he sees them on family nights when they visit the Orlando home he oversees, serving as a father figure to the younger men.

"We work on everything, from helping them change their swagger in their walk, to the way they drive, everything that requires discipline," Nieves said. "In many cases we're dealing with men who are boys at an emotional level. They never matured."

During the Christmas season, it can be particularly tough for recovery. That's why Maritza Sanz, who runs the non-profit Latino Leadership Inc., has started collecting donations so that, come Christmas Day, the men without families in the Orlando area will know that this community cares and values their determination to lead productive lives. The men need toiletries, bed linens, comforters, shaving kits -- the basics that many of us take for granted. If you want to help, call Sanz at 407-384-2929.

These young men just need to know that this community is routing for them, because too often in their lives they've felt they deserve nothing but the agony of addiction disguised as a good time to nowhere.


Founder of Hogares Crea Dies

December 17th, 2002.  

SAN JUAN (AP) - Hogares Crea founder Jose Juan (Cheguan) Garcia died Tuesday due to complications associated to his cancer ailment.

Garcia, who was 62 years old, suffered from cancer in his bones for two years, according to Hogares Crea President Julia Garcia Rios.

"Today [Tuesday] we notify the people of Puerto Rico the death at 1:45 p.m. of Cheguan, as we affectionately called him from childhood, and who for three decades led the destiny of Hogares Crea," she said in a press release.

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