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Rebuilding Alberto: Claiming His Own Life…A Young Man's Heroic Journey

Claiming His Own Life


Daily Record staff

December 12, 2003
Copyright © 2003
York Daily Record. All rights reserved.

They wanted Alberto Cuevas to run, and for good reason.

On the track, he can flat-out soar.

He racked up all sorts of track medals in Puerto Rico. During practice with a makeshift squad from the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities house in Manchester Township, he hinted that he still might have those rubber legs. He logged excellent times in the mile, the 400-relay and sprints at the track at West York Area High School. His strong, thin frame is the perfect build for a runner. His ability and willingness to work hard – a trait learned while toiling in labor-intensive, low-paying jobs and chores in Puerto Rico – is the ideal asset for an athlete who relies on endurance.

But his counselors at the rehab house where he was serving time wanted him to run in a figurative sense as well.

During the spring and summer months, they pounded him with ideology and pressure, prodded him to address family issues, and pushed him to confront authority figures who ask him to do the wrong thing.

There was just one problem.

After 10 months in the house, Alberto Cuevas was tired of running.

He told his counselors that he would no longer give 100 percent on the track – or 100 percent in his rehabilitation.

By admitting that certain members of his family continued to tangle themselves in the world of drugs, he had laid out for himself a whole new set of decisions to make, directions to move in and conflicts to resolve.

Where would he live? Where would he work? Who would he visit, and who would he ignore?

Most importantly, he needed to know who Alberto Cuevas was.

Physically, he had distanced himself from the Polaroid picture tacked to the bulletin board in the house that captured the boy he used to be – disheveled, sloppy, negative. This Alberto kept his hair neatly trimmed and shaved. For special occasions, he would don button-down shirts and pants, sometimes even ties.

Mentally, he felt jumbled after confronting the demons and the hurdles that the staff laid out in front of him.

His counselors wanted him to clear the hurdles.

But first, he would have to learn how.

One to remember

If David Santana, Alberto’s main counselor, was the good cop, then Rashad Elby easily earned the title of bad cop during Alberto’s stay in the house.

The tall, muscular former Central York High School sports star rode Alberto harder than any other counselor. His arsenal ranged from picking on him with light-hearted comments to verbally crashing down on Alberto when he stepped out of line.

The cycle of Elby’s challenges, Santana’s discipline and Alberto’s backlashes came to a head in late April. Alberto wasn’t looking Elby or Santana in the eye when they confronted him. He wasn’t running hard on the track during practice for the program’s Olympic Day, which pitted members of 10 houses against each other.

He began to resent Elby and Santana for taking away his homepass privileges because he got in trouble.

"They were coming at me for nothing. It was too much," Alberto said. "They took my homepass away, and they knew that was bothering me."

Alberto said that, one afternoon, Elby chided him for laughing and talking to another resident when they were supposed to be quiet in the room – usually, this is a minor offense. At this point, Alberto was already wearing the robe, a tool counselors use to punish residents who step out of line and dissuade them from running away.

Alberto continued to misbehave, so Elby took him into the living room.

Elby told Alberto to sit in a chair.

Alberto said no. He wanted to stand.

Elby told him to sit.

Elby grabbed him and tried to put him in the chair.

"So I slammed his hand," Alberto said. "So he grabbed me and he restrained me."

Alberto reacted in the wrong way. But he reacted. Finally, Alberto had shown a backbone and an ability to stand up when confronted with a situation where he felt he was wronged.

Santana said the exchange with Elby was important because, until then, Alberto complied with any authority figures – family members in Puerto Rico, friends and peers in Lancaster – who asked him to do things he didn’t agree with.

"We tried to get him to the point where, OK, you’re a hard worker. You respect authority," Santana said. "But we need to make sure that you also understand when authority’s not respecting you, you need to stand up for yourself and confront that situation."

It didn’t help that Elby coached the group of kids who ran track in the house and later competed in the Keystone Games, a statewide invitational track meet. Alberto’s resistance spilled onto the track.

"I was not pulling 100 percent. I am not going to give 100 percent to these people," he said. "So I was running slow. Rashad got pissed off at me, and he made me sit down. I was trying to take my power back, because I was frustrated."

But Alberto grew and changed and saw in time that Elby rode him for a reason.

He cared about Alberto, and he wanted him to succeed. And succeed he did. In mid-June at Olympic Day, he was clocked at five minutes and 22 seconds in the mile event – good enough for a first-place medal.

Later, on Aug. 1, 2 and 3, he helped his squad place fourth out of eight teams at the Keystone Games. They competed against teams made up of young men from colleges all over the state.

By the end of the summer, Alberto’s view of Elby changed completely.

"I like Rashad," he said. "The relationship is getting better. He’s the person that I’m going to remember most when I get out of the program."

Boys to men

The boys huddled in a circle, locked arms and jumped in the air six times in unison.

"We are warriors! We are warriors! We are warriors!"

The chant grew and grew, beginning at a polite level and climbing toward a crescendo.

When they quieted down, they were still boys. But by the time each would say goodbye to the group, he would be a man, or at least a lot closer to that than he was at the beginning of the 15-week program.

Hence the program’s name: "Boys to Men."

Bob McKendrick is a co-founder of Alternative Rehabilitation Communities. About three years ago, he noticed that his young men needed a more intense group session as they reached the middle of their treatment and made the leap toward the end.

"Boys to Men" combines the teachings of author and mythologist Joseph Campbell ("The Hero With A Thousand Faces"), poet Robert Bly and Harvard professor Sam Keene with McKendrick’s own experiences.

The goal is to help participants identify what kind of man they want to be and to help them address and break away from pain and suffering they experienced as children.

"A lot of the young men don’t have the proximity to men in their lives, don’t have positive role models who are men," McKendrick said. "Once you have a list of things that you like about men in your life, that’s really an externalization of your internal value code. Our role as facilitators is to have those kids internalize those values in their lives."

These are kids who have learned to survive the circumstances they were born into. They search for an identity. They bond with each other. They develop skills for earning a living and managing their money.

At this mid-July meeting, Alberto had reached the 14-week mark of the program and appeared to have acquired many of its tools and teachings. He also appeared to be applying them to his own life.

He landed a weekend job washing dishes at the Lonestar Steakhouse and Saloon off the Fruitville Pike in Lancaster. He talked about renting an apartment and sharing it with his brother and a friend from the program.

With drugs and other problems still near his home and in his neighborhood, Alberto decided to find a place elsewhere.

"It’s not good for us," he said. "There’s a lot of trouble."

He was thinking big, too. On his days off, he planned to attend culinary or electrical classes – or both – at the local vo-tech.

At this point, he was working on his "hero story" for "Boys To Men." Alberto and the other participants were asked to shape their life stories into the "hero" format: The tale of someone who faces insurmountable circumstances and finds a way out through athletics, education, art or any talent that they might possess. Alberto’s story began in Puerto Rico and ended with him growing into a man through this program.

"They find a way out of their circumstance," McKendrick said. "They come back, and their efforts benefit the community as a whole."

The last few months of Alberto’s program moved fast. When he began pre-release toward the end of the summer, he was home on weekends and at the rehab house during the week. When fall settled in, that schedule flipped and he was home during the entire week.

During those extended stays in Lancaster, Alberto recalled seeing that nothing had changed at the homes of certain family members as far as drugs were concerned.

"I saw drugs. Not in my face, but I saw movement," Alberto said. "So I stayed away from that. I try not to be in those environments. The thing is, I’m sure about myself that I ain’t going to do it. But the thing is when you are in that place, you can pay the price for other people. Other people are doing things and you can pay for that because you are there."

A major part of the pre-release process was setting up where to live. The money and logistics simply would not allow Alberto to live on his own. He had to live with his family.

He had to use the tools he learned in "Boys To Men." He had to rewrite the end of his "hero story."

Last day

The act of actually leaving the rehab house was no big deal.

Alberto had left for community days and spent several days at his aunt’s house in Lancaster during homepasses.

But Sunday, Sept. 21 – a crisp, sun-soaked day draped in a blue sky – would be different.

Alberto would walk through the back door of the house and into a van waiting for him in the parking lot. And if he wanted, he never had to return.

Save for the final trappings of probation, he was a free man.

"I woke up this morning. I started looking out the window," Alberto said. "And I couldn’t believe that I’m already going out, you know what I mean? The time passed so quick. I couldn’t believe that I’m already going on release today. That made me feel good."

When the time came to leave, the residents and staff gathered in the living room. One by one, each kid approached Alberto, hugged him and offered words of encouragement.

"Just keep it up," one said. "We may not see each other. Good luck and stay strong."

Counselor Frank Terry stood up and talked about how Alberto used to style his hair differently, and how that led to him hanging with the wrong crowd.

He said that when he first met him, Alberto was lost. He took out a $1 bill, wrote his phone number on it and gave it to him.

"Whenever you feel that way, and you have nobody else, I’m going to give you this dollar, so you can call here," Terry said. "Call me at home."

David Santana, Alberto’s counselor, was next.

"Time’s gone fast, man. Time’s gone fast. It seems like yesterday you just got here," Santana said. "And I’m proud of you. You’ve done a lot of growing in here. And you did this by yourself. Our job in here is just to plant a seed. That’s all we can do. It’s your job to grow it."

Just like he did when his little brother, Elizier, was in trouble, Alberto simply sat, silently, and listened while his teachers and peers gave him advice and encouragement.

But when they were finished, he stood up, front and center in the middle of the group.

"You were my second family. When I was out there, I was struggling. I went through a lot. And I got the help that I needed," Alberto said. "I was the kind of kid that I needed my family there for me. If my family wasn’t there, I was going to go and do negative things. Now, with the help that staff and the kids give me in here, I’ve been able to put my family to the side if I have to, and continue on with my life."

Before he left, Alberto said goodbye to his housemates, including Emilio, a second little brother with whom he’d had some success. Alberto said he helped Emilio learn how to stand up for himself, just like he did.

"He did a good job with him," Elby said.

Someone opened the back door. Bright yellow and cool blue and green leaked in, interrupted the blurry gray inside the house and started to pull Alberto outside.

Santana grabbed him one more time and hugged him.

"Good luck, buddy," he said. "Good luck."

Freedom, and a new life

Drugs. Poverty. Beat-down buildings. Litter. People gathering and drinking on front porches before the clock can reach happy hour.

This is the southeast Lancaster neighborhood where Alberto and his family live.

But there are good people there, too. People who simply want to work, raise their kids and have a good time with their family and friends.

People like Alberto.

By the middle of October, roughly a month since his release from the program, he had changed several aspects of his life. With guidance from family and friends, he decided it best to live with his aunt, mostly because of his mother’s previous drug problems.

He established a daily routine, waking at 4:30 a.m. and walking half an hour to his grandmother’s row house on Duke Street, where a Puerto Rican flag hangs in the window. In the afternoons and evenings, the front porch can become a hangout and a place for people to share a few beers. Alberto is allowed to spend no more than an hour at a time there.

But in the mornings, it’s fine, and he hangs out from 5 until 5:30, and then gets a ride to his job at a nearby tobacco plant.

By October, he appeared confident, a little tougher and not nearly as open with his thoughts as he had been back in the house. He kept his room tidy, but he had gone back on a pledge to remain a non-smoker, even though he had ridden his brother, Aleidis, for smoking.

He dropped his job at Lonestar in favor of two other jobs – at the tobacco plant and at a greenhouse – that offered more hours. Eventually, the job at the tobacco plant was also tossed aside. Alberto complained about allergies and his chest hurting from working there.

Alberto has interviewed for other jobs since. He also does landscape work on the weekends with Radames Melendez, one of his counselors.

For now, he has dropped his plans to earn a degree in the culinary or electrical fields. He also stopped taking his GED classes at the Spanish American Civic Association, and he said he’s not going back.

"I’m not into that," Alberto said. "I need to save money for my apartment and pay my fines."

The fines are payments Alberto must make for tickets he racked up before he cleaned up.

He wants to find another job that pays more and offers steady, long hours, preferably one that has him working 10 hours a day four days a week.

He spends most of his time with his family – mainly his brother, Aleidis – instead of on the streets. He said he cut all ties to his old friends.

He takes his mom, Luz Natal, and his aunt, Gloriavette Natal, out to dinner at least once a week.

"He’s actually been pretty good," Gloriavette Natal said. "In every day, being responsible. He has changed. He’s more respectful. He’s a clean freak. You go into his room, the bed is made up. It’s nicer than mine. I’ll be honest."

He visits his mother at least once a day after work, dropping in to say hello or sitting down to watch a movie and pig out on snacks. Luz Natal, a strong, beautiful woman who resembles Alberto in the face, said the difference in Alberto is striking.

"You can sit with him and talk," Luz Natal said. "Alberto changed big time."

At first, Alberto resisted visiting his former housemates and teachers. He wanted to establish himself and become a success before returning, so that his peers could see what he had made of himself.

But Alberto has quietly started to make return trips to the house on weekends. The staff and residents who saw him said he looked good and didn’t appear to be in trouble.

The Polaroid picture that shows Alberto Cuevas in July 2002 – bushy hair, untrimmed facial hair, menacing scowl filled with anger and confusion – is long gone.

A new image is coming into view.

He tries not to stray down the path of drugs and theft and deception that led him to lose his freedom. He strives to be employed in some capacity, working toward having a place of his own. He can leave his past in the past but he cannot leave his family or the place where he came from.

The puzzle pieces have come together.

Alberto Cuevas is on the verge of being his own person.

Alberto Cuevas is on the verge of becoming a man.

A Young Man's Heroic Journey: A Regional Program Works Hard To Help Troubled Youth Help Themselves


York Daily Record

December 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The mythology expert Joseph Campbell once explained that a hero's life is an adventure, begun without ever knowing the end.

But as Campbell taught in those stories of myth and folklore, certain events recur so often that they can be predicted. The hero will have to fend off dark forces cast against him. He will have to rely on a wise mentor to aid him. And he will have to trust that the final goal will reveal itself before the journey ends.

This barest thread of a storyline is as old as time. It put a hobbit on the path to Mordor and a prince on the drawbridge of Sleeping Beauty's castle. It gives us a reason to cheer an American Idol and a reason to jeer the first person voted off of the island.

But this familiar story isn't just one left to inspire good myths and bad TV. Real people choose real adventures all the time. And when people achieve their goals or reach their destinations, they re- emerge forever changed by the experience. That becomes the hero's quest.

Alberto Cuevas is one such hero, but his story's ending remains unwritten.

A young Puerto Rican, Mr. Cuevas is trying to set right his life. He's fought more dark forces than most.

He came to Lancaster just three years ago to join his mother. But a heroin addiction had found her first. He struggled to stay out of similar trouble and found a job, relying on a strong work ethic imposed by his strict grandfather in Puerto Rico.

But the straight and narrow proved to be too tough. He was 15. He wanted to be with his friends. He wanted to fit in so badly. He listened to the wrong people, tried drugs and couldn't stop. He robbed a store for more. Police caught him for both.

Enter the mentors.

Instead of jail or additional time in juvenile detention, Mr. Cuevas spent 14 months at the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities program in Manchester Township.

Here, mistakes came with consequences. Talk back, then take a seat.

Here, responsibility came with rules. No leadership meant no privileges.

And here, mentors came with missions.

The program, based in Harrisburg and begun 28 years ago by Daniel Elby of Springettsbury Township and Bob McKendrick of Wrightsville, serves about 200 kids in 10 homes across Central Pennsylvania. This pair leads the heroic and remarkable effort to change the lives of troubled young men.

Self-worth, respect, a good attitude and stronger family ties are all new skills taught to Mr. Cuevas and others in the program.

"We try to tell the kid what's right about them," Mr. McKendrick told the York Daily Record's Peter Bothum and Christopher Glass, a writing-photography team that followed Mr. Cuevas for months. "If they're worth something, then there's a reason for their existence, and they start to behave in that fashion."

As one part of the program, participants are required to form a "hero's story" of their own lives.

For his part, Mr. Cuevas struggled. At times, he stayed too quiet. At times, he said too much. He promised himself that he'd go to school. He promised himself that he wouldn't smoke any more. He promised himself that he would be different.

And in September, Mr. Cuevas went home to his family in Lancaster. The streets were the same, but had he changed?

His family said he had. He respects others, they said. He keeps his room clean, they said. And he seems easier to sit with and talk to, they said. He now lives with his aunt to keep moving forward.

But decisions have been made. No GED or culinary school classes for now. He wants to pay off his legal fines instead. More working hours and more pay are his desires.

For Mr. Cuevas, a hopeful journey remains unfinished. Dark temptations and difficult choices must still be met and made. Maybe only storybook heroes enjoy neat and complete happy endings. The rest of us must work to change our lives, learn something new and put it to use.

In Mr. Cuevas's case, folks from the rehabilitation program check in and nudge him when necessary. They have hopes for him and he has hopes for himself. He should not ignore their guidance. Mentors cleared his path, but he must take the steps forward.

When the road splits, the hero must choose a new direction.

When the road grows dark, the hero must be prepared to face the worst.

And when the road ends, the hero must be ready to change.

Thanks to the Alternative Rehabilitation Communities program, Mr. Cuevas returned to his journey with the encouragement of others.

Whether he faces new directions or new dangers, success is now within sight.

Our hero no longer walks alone.

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