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Rebuilding Alberto: He Wanted To Do The Right Things, But The Wrong Path Landed Him In Juvenile Rehab…Secrets & Setbacks

Rebuilding Alberto: Starting From Scratch He Wanted To Work Hard And Do The Right Things. But The Wrong Path Landed Him In A York County Juvenile Rehab. (SPECIAL REPORT;Includes: A Father's Lesson, And Key Players)

PETER BOTHUM Daily Record staff

December 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

York Daily Record

A Polaroid picture of 17-year-old Alberto Cuevas hangs from a bulletin board just inside the doorway of the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities house off Susquehanna Trail in Manchester Township.

His bushy, messy hair flies off of his head in the photo taken in July 2002. His faint, ungroomed pubescent mustache screams anger and confusion. His blank, frightened scowl says leave me alone, or cross the street, or I could do something at any moment that would crush your world.

The troubled boy in the picture has strayed down a destructive path of drugs and theft and deception that led him to this place.

The real Alberto Cuevas sits somewhere inside the house.

His neatly trimmed hair sticks close to his head. His cleanshaven face softly speaks of honesty and sincerity. His warm, inviting grin says give me another chance, or follow me, or if you will listen I will tell you anything you want to know about me and the things I've been through.

The boy in the house still faces troubles, but believes he has reached the end of that destructive path. He has moved on and is learning to respect himself and to earn the respect of others. He's working hard at two jobs so that he can eventually move into his own apartment.

Like many boys his age, Alberto Cuevas wants to know who he is.

He wants to know what's inside.

The answer lies somewhere between the Polaroid picture that captured who he was and the person he will soon become.

For 14 months, he will attempt to rip that picture off the bulletin board and put it behind him.

For 14 months, he will be tested at this home for boys like him - 15 to 18 years old with Latino backgrounds, who are considered serious, chronic or repeat offenders.

For 14 months, he will try to right the wrongs caused by his bad decisions. Selling and smoking marijuana. Robbing stores. Bad decisions that landed him in this juvenile rehabilitation home and stalled his life for more than a year.

But the seeds of Alberto's troubles were planted long before he smoked his first joint or even made his first ill-fated acquaintance in Lancaster.

Alberto arrives

No one will ever know if family, fate or a higher power plucked Alberto from the mountainous village of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, three years ago and plopped him in southeast Lancaster - a rough, poor section of the city.

Almost upon arrival in central Pennsylvania, 15-year-old Alberto faced challenges and adversity and psychological land mines that would frighten most adults.

The first time he saw his mother, Luz Natal, in almost a decade, she was hooked on heroin. She had left Adjuntas for the United States when Alberto was 6 years old - leaving him in the care of his dad's parents and other family there. According to court documents at the Lancaster County Courthouse, Natal has been arrested at least five times since the early 1990s. The most recent offense was on June 28, 2000, when Natal was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. A warrant is out for her arrest because she has not paid fines and court costs stemming from that case.

His father was even more of a stranger. Since his birth, Alberto has spent only two weeks with Alberto Cuevas Ramos, who left for the United States when Alberto was 5 years old. He recently finished an 11-year drug sentence at the State Correctional Institution in Chester. In November, Ramos was released and sent to a halfway house in York.

Ramos and his son have exchanged letters recently, but Alberto isn't sure what - if any - relationship he wants with his father if the two ever reconnect.

But some of the troubles Alberto has had to face posed more immediate threats - some members of his family in Lancaster were involved in the drug business, either as users, sellers or enablers.

Even before he arrived in the states, Alberto struggled with some of his family ties. Back in Adjuntas, beginning at the age of 11, his paternal grandparents had him working hard.

Sometimes he would get paid for the labor-intensive jobs and chores, and sometimes he wouldn't. At one point, Alberto's grandfather had him making charcoal, a long, laborious process involving cutting trees and grinding up and cooking the wood.

"That's not easy," Alberto said. "It's hard. Sometimes I'd have to wake up at night. You have to put dirt on top of it so they can cook slowly inside."

His grandfather also worked other jobs, including one where he made Alberto and his brother pick up soda cans in the streets for recycling while he drove in front of them in a truck.

"He was the kind of person that, if we didn't do the work that he wants, we were bad kids," Alberto said. "He would say, 'Ah, you don't want to help me, right? You want to be in the street, screwing around and all of that stuff. You are a bad kid.' That was my grandpa. But if you help him, you were a good kid. He never showed love, it was only when we helped him. That's the kind of thing he put us through."

But there was one trait, or pattern of behavior, that Alberto learned from hours and hours of picking up cans, picking bananas and picking himself out of bed at all hours of the morning.

He internalized the idea that working hard was an absolute necessity.

A hard worker stumbles

When Alberto was about 15, he wrote a letter to his mother, and his family brought him to the United States.

After arriving in Lancaster, he worked while also attending school. Stops included Heritage Farm Restaurant, KFC and Old Country Buffet.

His counselor, David Santana, said he was pulling in about $800 per paycheck - not too shabby for a 15- or 16-year-old living at home with no bills.

The manager at Heritage Farms in Lancaster, the restaurant where Alberto washed dishes, told Alberto that he was quick with the dishes and that he had a chance to move up to food-handling duties. He learned how to cook green beans, corn, mashed potatoes and roast beef.

He stayed out of trouble during his first year or so in Lancaster, but he saw things in his own family that began to cloud his vision and self-esteem, he said.

"When I came here, I saw my mom use heroin. And that hurt me," Alberto said. "It's like, my eyes closed."

His aunt, Gloriavette Natal, said Luz was taking in "several bundles" - a large amount of the drug - per day. Alberto said she was extremely skinny back then.

"I was in drugs before," Luz Natal said at her Lancaster home in October. "I've been clean for three years."

But the sight of his mother was enough to throw 15-year-old Alberto off the rails, and instead of working jobs and helping his mother kick the habit, he, too, turned to drugs to escape.

Alberto approached one of the guys he was hanging around with and said he wanted to smoke. He asked for a bag of marijuana and told him he'd pay him later. Instead, the friend rolled him a joint, right there on the spot, and told Alberto to have a puff with him.

"And I smoked. I felt real crazy, because it was the first time. I stopped and told him that I don't want any more. He said, 'Why did you quit?' I said, 'Because I don't want any more.'"

But Alberto was just scared. He did want more.

He came home and threw himself on the sofa. His grandmother asked why he was lying there and told him to go sleep in his room. She grabbed him, and put him in his bedroom.

"I was happy, because she didn't see me," Alberto said. "I was high."

After that, he started using marijuana heavily, almost daily.

"It scared me, because I thought I was going to die," he said. "Because it was too much to me. I would do it a couple of times. I was too high. When I would sleep and wake up, I would go back and do it again."

Once he started smoking heavily, his jobs began paying for his habit and all of the side entertainment - eating, watching movies - that went with it. Santana said Alberto would receive his $800 paycheck on Friday and by Monday morning it was gone.

"Had nothing to show for it," Santana said. "He bought marijuana all the time. He was treating for the marijuana, the food, for everything. Why would he treat his friends? He's got needs. The need to belong to something. For that love, you know what I mean? And it didn't matter that he had to pay for it."

Eventually, it became more and more difficult for him to make it to work on time or to even hold down jobs. And Alberto and his pals needed money to pay for their pot.

In October 2000, they broke into a Family Dollar Store and were caught. Alberto was charged with burglary and sent to a detention center - the first stain on his record.

Second chance

At that point, a man entered Alberto's young life. A man who could save him.

A man who still might do just that.

The Lancaster County Office of Juvenile Probation and Parole assigned Daniel Vasquez to be Alberto's watchdog.

Vasquez, who said he was not permitted to talk about Alberto for this story because of confidentiality reasons, pulled Alberto out of detention after 10 days and returned him to his grandmother's house.

From the second he met Alberto, Vasquez saw potential and promise. He took Alberto to church on Sundays, played basketball with him and took him bowling.

During his first stint on probation, Alberto stayed off the streets but continued to smoke pot at home. To pass drug tests during probation, Alberto plunked down $30 for a drug testing cleanser (available at health stores) to rinse the drug out of his system.

Meanwhile, Alberto ramped up his involvement from using to selling.

"I saw people selling. I saw people get money easy," Alberto said. "I said I don't want to work. When you smoke, you don't want to work. You're always tired."

In October 2001, police caught Alberto with several bags of pot, slapped him with a felony drug charge and sent him back to the detention center.

Vasquez was incensed, but because Alberto had passed probation he was given another opportunity. He went back to school and began working again, this time at a nearby KFC franchise. Probation called off his house arrest so that he could work longer hours.

But once again Alberto began hanging out with friends who were smoking.

"And I was not able to control myself," Alberto said.

The pot-cleansing drink allowed Alberto to pass his drug tests, but Vasquez knew something wasn't right. He kept calling Alberto's cell phone, begging him to come back to him and tell him what was going on.

Two months later, he was picked up by police while skipping school - a violation of his probation.

But Vasquez was there for him again.

He sensed something inherently good within this young man. Something few others could see. He submitted Alberto's application for the Alternative Rehabilitative Communities program and a chance to start his life over.

"He always believed in me that I could do it, but I was kind of, like, confused. Every time I would go to talk to him, he was giving me real input but my mind was in the streets all the time, thinking, 'I cannot wait to get out of here and go smoke,'" Alberto said. "He always liked the kind of person that I was, because I was quiet. I was real humble. But I was following people.

"I felt bad, because he gave me a lot of opportunities."

In July 2002, at age 17, Alberto walked through the door at the Alternative Rehabilitative Communities house on Susquehanna Trail.

The staff there took a Polaroid picture of him. Whoever Alberto Cuevas was at that time - his destructive personality, his downward path in life, his descent into drugs and deception - was frozen in time.

Only time would tell if that photo would fade, or if the troubled boy in the picture was a permanent fixture.



Alberto's father, Alberto Cuevas Ramos, recently completed an 11- year sentence on drug charges in the State Correctional Institution in Chester. He was released Nov. 3 and sent to the Community Corrections Center, a halfway house in York. Below is an excerpt from a letter, written in Spanish and translated, that Ramos sent to the York Daily Record in April.

"I talk to my son like a son and like a best friend. I talk to him a lot about what it is like to lose all your youth in a state prison like what happened to me. I lost the best 11 years of my youth in a state prison, without being able to see my mother and my loved ones. It is a nightmare ... I talk to my son about what happened to me; that I didn't seek out help to find myself. I thought I could do it alone, and that is why I beg my son and all young people who find themselves in the vice of drugs that they seek out help so that they find themselves and so they don't have to go through what I did, losing all my youth in a state prison. They fight one day at a time."


Below is a list of the key people in this three-day series:

Alberto Cuevas: The 18-year-old Lancaster resident was raised in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, and moved to central Pennsylvania at the age of 15. He was arrested twice and picked up for violating his probation in the spring of 2002. He recently completed 14 months in a juvenile rehabilitation home in Manchester Township.

Rashad Elby: A counselor and member of the leadership team at the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities house in Manchester Township. He's tough on Alberto but looks out for him as well. The Springettsbury Township native starred in sports at Central York High School and Hampton University in Virginia and received his degree in political science and sociology from that school. He's the son of program co-founder Daniel Elby.

David Santana: Alberto's primary counselor and mentor and a member of the leadership team at the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities house. The Harrisburg resident graduated from Monmouth College in Illinois.

Radames Melendez: Counselor and leadership team member at the Manchester Township house. Alberto did some landscaping work with Melendez on the weekends while he was in the house and after his release.

Daniel Elby: Co-founder of Alternative Rehabilitation Communities, the Springettsbury Township resident also serves as board president for the Crispus Attucks Community Center in York and is a member of the Central York School District's board of directors. His son, Rashad, helps run the rehab program's Manchester Township house on Susquehanna Trail.

Alberto Cuevas Ramos: Alberto's father, who recently completed an 11-year sentence on drug charges in the State Correctional Institution in Chester. He was released Nov. 3 and sent to the Community Corrections Center, a halfway house in York. Since Alberto was born, he and his father have spent only a few weeks together.

Aleidis Cuevas: Alberto's 17-year-old brother, whom he worried about constantly while in the program. After his release in September, Alberto spent much of his time with Aleidis and planned to get an apartment with him.

Luz Natal: Alberto's mother, who lives in Lancaster with a few of Alberto's siblings. After a long battle with drugs, Natal has cleaned up and enjoys watching movies, going out to dinner and taking part in other activities with Alberto.

Gloriavette Natal: Alberto's aunt, with whom he now lives in Lancaster.

Bob McKendrick: Co-founder of Alternative Rehabilitation Communities Inc. who runs Boys To Men, a 15-week program for residents as they near the end of their treatment. The goal is to help participants identify what kind of man they want to be and to help them break away from pain and suffering they experienced as children.

Elizier: Alberto's first "little brother" in the program. After three months in the program, Alberto was supposed to show Elizier the ropes but struggled with the responsibility.

Daniel Vasquez: Alberto's first probation officer and the man responsible for placing Alberto in the program. Long after Alberto was transferred to another probation officer, Vasquez gave advice to Alberto and sent him letters and cards. Even after Alberto's release, Vasquez continues to be a friend and mentor.


Alberto Cuevas' father, Alberto Cuevas Ramos, had been serving time at the State Correctional Institution in Chester. Ramos was released Nov. 3 and sent to the Community Corrections Center, a halfway house, in York.

Most of Alberto's family lives in Lancaster. His mother, Luz Natal, and aunt, Gloriavette Natal, both live in the southeast section of the city.

He also has six siblings:

Aleidis, 17

Ivana, 16

Jessemia, 15

Alexis, 14

Angel, 13

Sugeil, 12


Harrisburg-based Alternative Rehabilitation Communities Inc. houses male and female juvenile offenders between 15 to 18 years old at 10 locations throughout central Pennsylvania, including two in Manchester Township.

The 28-year-old non-profit organization was founded by Springettsbury Township resident Daniel Elby and Bob McKendrick of Wrightsville.

Offenses that have landed juvenile offenders in the homes include drug possession, drug use, robbery, assault, homicide and auto thefts.

Rebuilding Alberto: Secrets And Setbacks Fitting Together The Pieces Of This New Life Proves More Difficult Than He Would Have Guessed.

PETER BOTHUM Daily Record staff

December 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

York Daily Record

Not too much happens at the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities house in Manchester Township during January.

Fifteen young men wake up at 5:45 every morning. They walk single file downstairs to the living room, where 15 uncomfortable wooden chairs arranged in a circle await them.

Instead of moving to the nearby classroom, they study in the circle.

Instead of adjourning to the dining room area for breakfast, lunch or dinner, they eat in the circle.

Instead of moving to tasks outside the house or in other rooms, they spend the entire day - until the lights go out at 10:30 at night - right there in the circle.

They call this "shut down," and it lasts as long as the residents fail to completely embrace the rigid rules and slow pace.

"It's like back-to-basics," said Alberto Cuevas, a lucky resident who could leave the circle for a few minutes for a chat in the staff's office.

There, Alberto looked over his shoulder and spotted a stack of jigsaw puzzles on the shelf. Usually, these puzzles and other games would be available to the residents.

But during shut down, privileges are stripped away or severely restricted.

Before shut down, he made significant progress on a hot-air balloon puzzle. But every time he would get a huge chunk of it together, the group would move on to something else and he'd have to take it apart and put it away.

He developed schemes for keeping it together, such as gluing the pieces to a slice of carpet, but he could not figure out how to keep it all together.

In fact, after several months in the program, Alberto still had not figured out much of anything.

He solidified his position as a leader in the house and made huge progress with Elizier, a boy paired with him as a "little brother." The idea is to provide guidance for new arrivals by

teaming them up with older boys. Conversely, the older boys learn responsibility by watching out for someone else.

But the puzzle pieces moved.

Elizier stopped listening to Alberto's advice and continued to misbehave and disrespect staff. Alberto briefly lost his "leader" status a few times after becoming frustrated and talking back to staff members.

Alberto said he was committed to going to school after his release from the house, possibly focusing on a career in the culinary field or maybe as an electrician.

But the puzzle pieces moved again.

He struggled with his English, especially when it came to having confidence and speaking out in class or group situations. As a result, he struggled in the house's classes, conducted by an English- speaking teacher, William Grove, and a Spanish-speaking teacher, John Gumby.

Despite the setbacks, Alberto was doing well in the program. When he first entered the house, he talked but kept some of his feelings and emotions inside.

By this point, he talked openly about the physical and mental abuse he endured in Puerto Rico, about the emotional trauma he endured after seeing his mom swallowed by heroin, about his abuse of marijuana and his strays outside the law.

Alberto Cuevas was lined up to leave this program in the earliest amount of time possible - nine months.

But in a seismic shift not unlike a California fault line cracking, the puzzle pieces that make up Alberto's life moved and broke apart and formed a soup of fragments.

In order to leave the house and start his life over, Alberto would have to find a way to keep those pieces together.

Little brother

Like a racehorse hitting each post on the track, Alberto sprinted and galloped over some sections of the program like a champion. In other sections, his feet slipped and slid and became lodged in the muck-covered drag-days of autumn.

But at the three-month post in October 2002, he was still a golden boy in the house. He improved his English from choppy sentences missing words to clear, fully formed thoughts. He shared his innermost thoughts and formed plans for his future.

"He really internalizes the advice that we give in here," said David Santana, his primary counselor and an administrator for the house. "You're not going to find too many kids that come in here like that.

"He's amazing to me, sometimes, the way he expresses himself."

Alberto backed up that high praise with equivalent actions both in the house and outside of it.

He had no problem playing the role of big brother to his real- life sibling, 17-year-old Aleidis, who lives in Lancaster with his grandmother. He kept in close contact with Aleidis, and he regularly jumped on his brother's case for various things he'd been doing, from smoking cigarettes to driving without a license to drinking alcohol.

"I want to be on his back all of the time. You know, check him, what he's doing," Alberto said. "When I get out, I don't want to see him smoke in front of me. I'm going to take that cigarette and throw it on the floor."

Alberto talked about going to college and even entertained the possibility of becoming a counselor like two of his mentors in the house, Santana and counselor Rashad Elby.

"I was thinking about that," Alberto said. "When I get out of here, I'm going to start going to meetings for people that use drugs. I want to go to (the detention center) again, and talk to the people that are in there. To help people. I like that."

Around the same time, however, Alberto hit a rough spot in the track. He was assigned to be a big brother to Elizier, a troubled teenager and new resident in the house. Alberto would show Elizier the ropes, help him learn a packet worth of ground rules and, most importantly, keep him out of trouble.

He also would help Elizier get out of his robe. All new residents have to wear a robe for the first few weeks that they are in the house. Elby said the robe acts as an AWOL deterrent - nine times out of 10, a student won't go out and run if he's in the robe. Residents who experience a serious lag in their progress or commit a serious offense also are placed in the robe. Even after they take the robe off, residents wear socks and flip-flops or sandals instead of shoes so that it's hard for them to run if they escape.

And yet, instead of embracing the chance at a leadership role, Alberto balked.

"I didn't want him," Alberto said. "I said I don't want to, because I don't know if I'm going to do good or do bad."

At an ice-skating rink, Elizier switched his older sports team jacket with another resident's jacket - essentially, he stole it.

Later, Elizier told Alberto what he had done.

Instead of alerting staff and reporting the incident, Alberto did nothing. He didn't punish Elizier.

"I was thinking about me, about my homepass, and my community days," Alberto said. "And I didn't take it back to the staff. I'm the big brother, and I'm supposed to be on him and tell him what to do. And I lost a little bit there."

What he lost was his counselor's trust that he would always step up and be a leader.

The missteps continued over the next few months. Elizier talked back to Alberto and disrespected him in front of others.

Alberto returned the favor and failed to take care of Elizier. As his big brother, Alberto was solely responsible for guiding and giving advice to Elizier. But he didn't talk to Elizier about his past or his problems before arriving in the house. In front of the whole house, he said he no longer wanted to be a big brother to Elizier.

On Dec. 10, Elizier's attitude and his unchanged street-tough swagger spilled over into an altercation with another resident named Israel. Elizier saw Elby and Israel talking and laughing, and he thought they were making fun of him. Elizier shoved Israel and a brawl nearly broke out.

With the house's residents watching, counselor Radames Melendez swooped in on the two young men and broke them down, piece by piece, in a tense, machine-gun like session.

During the exchange, Alberto sat right next to his little brother but said nothing.

"You were talking about how you're in control, how you were really changed, how the group affects you," Melendez said. "Both of you guys ain't that bad. You sitting here, aren't you? Where you sitting at? Huh? I don't hear you."

"Right here," Israel answered.

"Where you sitting at?" Melendez barked at Elizier.

"Right here," Elizier mumbled.

"OK, you're not sitting with the rest of the high school kids, getting ready to have, in another couple of days, their Christmas vacation until the middle of January," said Melendez, now on a seemingly stream-of-conscious rant. "You're not doing any Christmas shopping are you? You're not eating any rice and beans and all that good Spanish cooking that parents cook throughout the holiday, are you, right now? Can't do that."

Three counselors - Melendez, Elby and Alonzo Williams - shared the floor and tapped the discussion to each other and back like it was a game of psychological hackeysack.

Finally, Elizier, verbally beaten to a pulp, stood up and walked over to Israel.

"I'll throw everything in the trash. Whatever you need from me, I give it to you," Elizier said to Israel. "When I need something, I will ask you."

They hugged.

"The past is the past," Israel said. "You got to let it go."

As the angry red faded from the faces of the young men and their counselors, stress seeped from the cracks of the room.

Alberto just sat. And watched. And didn't say a word.

By March, the staff had relieved Alberto of his big brother duties with Elizier. He had his own problems to deal with.

But the experience taught him something about responsibility, and blocking out distractions. When the time came for him to be a big brother again - both in the house and in real life - he would be ready.

Stumble and frustration

In early November, Alberto spilled his soul and apologized before a judge at Lancaster County Court. The judge told Santana that he didn't think Alberto needed nine more months in the program.

He was scheduled to go on homepass for Thanksgiving, but his first visit was put on hold because counselors felt he was not ready yet.

One day close to the holiday, Santana grabbed him and some of the other guys who could not go home and asked them how they felt.

"I said I feel guilty, and lonely," Alberto said. "Guilty because it's my fault because I'm not home with my family. And lonely because I'm not going to be with my family. I'm going to be with people I don't know."

During that session, Alberto told the group that he felt down because he put the decision to go home or not in other people's hands by breaking the law.

He cried and poured out his feelings in front of the others, and they cried and poured out their feelings with him.

Santana thought not going home early helped Alberto, because it gave him time to heal and organize his thoughts about his mother's drug problem, the abuse and mental trauma he endured in Puerto Rico and his worries about his family.

"He hasn't gone on a homepass yet," Santana said in January. "And I'm glad he hasn't."

But like many of the residents, Alberto struggled through the shut down phase of the program, which takes place once a year in January.

The openness and ability to talk through his frustrations and feelings froze up with the cold weather. He stopped expressing himself and, more importantly, stopped talking.

The residents were studying black history heroes and events, but Alberto lagged behind in his studying and could not remember any of the facts or figures when quizzed by staff.

He moved back some more during a morning group session in January. A counselor asked the group to express their feelings and one student held back on sharing his thoughts. Alberto advised the student resident to let go and express what was on his mind. This made Alberto a hypocrite, because he also was holding back in group sessions.

Elby and Santana put Alberto back in the robe - an outward and physical sign of his regression.

"I don't feel that it's something real, real wrong that I did," Alberto said. "Only that I have to go back, I have to start doing the same things I was doing when I first came here. Don't lose track. That's why they put me in the robe. I told them about all the problems in my past, but they want me to express more."

Around the same time, Alberto also struggled to confront major issues in his life that needed to be addressed.

Santana pressed him to ask a critical question: Why hadn't Alberto ever asked his mother, Luz Natal, why she picked drugs over him? Why, in his entire life, had she spent only the equivalent of a year with Alberto? Why was his mother not there when his aunt's husband came to pick him up for the community days?

Although he hadn't expressed it yet, Santana sensed a frustration and an anger simmering inside of him.

"He doesn't think he deserves that answer. He'll swallow that and keep that in him for his entire life," Santana said in mid-January. "He's an angry kid. This is an angry kid right now."

Puzzle in pieces

In early February, Alberto was still in the robe.

But unlike in late January, when he had clothes on underneath, counselors now made sure he was only wearing a T-shirt and underwear beneath the robe.

It appeared that staff truly considered him a risk to go AWOL.

His voice was quiet, his mannerisms were deliberate and he spoke painfully, as if he had been stabbed in the stomach.

In a way, he had been. A new resident had come in from Lancaster, and he knew some of Alberto's family. What he told counselors showed them that Alberto had been lying about himself and his family all along.

Some in his family had been selling cocaine in Lancaster, and Alberto had been involved in these drug sales.

He denied the allegations at first, but cracked under questioning. He had to. The staff members already had hints of this information on file.

But they needed Alberto to admit it. And accept it.

And because he did, everything changed. One staff member would later say that if it wasn't for the revelation, Alberto would have made it out of the program in nine months. The staff would now have to deal with this new dynamic in his treatment. Elby, Santana and the others would have to re-evaluate their level of trust in Alberto.

Elby wrapped Alberto's situation inside a metaphor: He was once on the top of a mountain and was now back at the bottom.

He would now have to begin climbing again.

"I realized that some of the things that I'm saying about my family around me are fake," Alberto said. "But the thing is, I care, and I don't want (the family members) to get locked up, so I never talked about it. I'm not mad about the kid that talked about it.

"It's something that I was holding, and holding and holding. I felt good that the kid talked about it."

A whole new conflict had emerged: What would Alberto do about his family members and their involvement in drugs when he left the protection of this house? Could - or should - he shut them out of his life completely?

And where would he live once he was released? One early blueprint had him working while still living in the house and moving right into his own apartment upon release. Another had him moving back with his family.

He began his search for the answers immediately. He planned to confront his family about the drugs the next time he went home to visit them.

"I have to confront them about it," Alberto said. "If they care about me and about what they're doing, they're going to stop. If they don't stop, they don't care about nothing. Then I'll talk to the judge, and tell him that I don't want to go back with my family. I cannot go with my family if my family's still selling drugs."

But like everything in Alberto's life, the solution would not be that easy to come by.

The puzzle pieces would move.

In fact, the shape of this entire life puzzle would change.

The calendar made its way into spring, and Alberto still hadn't talked to the members of his family who were involved in drugs. He decided that he didn't have to.

"I've completely changed that," he said in March. "I'm not going to confront my family. I'm going to get out of here and do something for me, and for my brothers, when I get better."

Puzzle takes shape

Anger. Stress. Sadness. Frustration.

Alberto felt them all as he confronted his past and present.

In the spring, he began overnight homepass visits to Lancaster that included spending time with his mother.

Luz Natal wasn't stressed out and yelling at his brothers and sisters like usual. She looked healthy when Alberto returned home, and the house was well-kept. Alberto said he was able to spend time with her and brought her flowers for Mother's Day.

"I said sorry because it was not too much, but she told me that it's OK," Alberto said. "I was proud about my mom, you know what I mean? Because she was looking good, the house was looking good. I was happy about my mom, because I saw my mom different than before. I was used to seeing my mom like ... another personality. The house was not the same, her personality was not the same."

The visits also provided Alberto with his first taste of freedom since the summer of 2002. Experiences that most people take for granted - such as waking up in your own bed or walking around outside - seemed fabulously strange to Alberto.

"Sometimes I was thinking I'd say 'go through' when I was going through the doors," he said, referring to the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities rule that lets staff know where residents are at all times.

Around the same time, in late April, staff decided Alberto could enter the "Boys To Men" program. The intense, 15-week cycle is designed to help residents figure out what kind of men they want to be and to learn tools for living outside of the house, such as holding down jobs and managing money.

Four weeks into the program, it appeared that Alberto was soaking this stuff up. He looked inside himself. He picked out positive attributes that he wanted to possess when he became a man.

"I still have a little kid inside of me," Alberto said in early May. "And I have to stand up to be a man. I want to take that kid out of me. Start growing like a man, because I'm 18. And it's not easy, you know what I mean? You have to work with the things that really, really bother you."

Bob McKendrick, the co-founder of the program who runs the "Boys To Men" group, wanted the boys in the group to target the one thing that they wouldn't let go of, the one thing that held them back from being a man.

Alberto decided on at least one.

"Yeah, trying to be accepted by people," Alberto said. "That was one of my problems when I was out there. I started doing negative things. If the people don't want to accept me the way that I am, I don't worry about it anymore. That's on you. There's plenty of people who are going to accept me the way that I am. So I don't have to make a bad decision like smoking or selling drugs or all of that stuff. That's one of the things that I have to let go."

Alberto's family situation and post-rehab life was becoming clearer. The pain from his past had seeped to the surface. There were reasons behind the mistakes he had made.

The mask was coming off.

And the puzzle was taking shape.

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