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A Place Of Refuge

A drug-rehab program modeled after one from Puerto Rico struggles to survive

By Víctor Manuel Ramos | Sentinel Staff Writer

5 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Carlos Ríos and José Dones repeated their sales pitch in Spanish and English as they recently followed shoppers around the Top Produce and Groceries in Apopka.

"Ma'am, do you like custard pie?" Ríos asked a woman in a hurry. "Hey, Miss, how about some sweet flan?" he asked another shopper. "Sir, we need your help. Please buy some flan from us," Dones begged nearby.

It took them an hour to sell the first of 25 pies, at $5 apiece. The money was not theirs to keep, though. Ríos and Dones, recovering drug addicts, were raising money to support a new Orlando rehab center, where more than a dozen low-income men like them live.

Hogar CREA International of Florida announced its opening in October but is already struggling to stay afloat following a leadership crisis.

The home, modeled after a decades-old organization in Puerto Rico, takes in addicts free of charge as long as they commit to three recovery phases, which can take up to three years .

The proceeds from flan sales are its only income. The sales are also considered therapeutic for the men.

On a good day, about 100 flan are sold to individuals and retail businesses, amounting to $200 above and beyond their costs, said Orlando group director Carmelo Ruiz Haddock.

The men, who also bake the flan and are responsible for the upkeep of the house, call the work tiring.

"Sometimes I'm ambivalent about it, because I just want to leave the house. I feel used. But that's the addict talking," says Dones, 21, who joined the home as the center prepared to open about two months ago.

Hogar CREA is the brainchild of the late Juan José García Ríos, a former addict who established the group in Puerto Rico in 1968. He believed reforming addicts would be the best counselors for others fighting addiction.

Hogar means "home," while CREA is an acronym for Community for the Reeducation of Addicts.

When García Ríos died in 2002, dozens of homes had been established in Puerto Rico and beyond, including several within Puerto Rican communities in Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Orlando, where Puerto Ricans have become the largest segment of the Hispanic population, was the next logical location. It helped that the founder's son, Javier García, lived in Kissimmee. He started the Orlando chapter in 2001, but the group struggled to grow roots here.

When it opened a home on Orlando's Hillcrest Street some area residents rallied against it, prompting city inspections that revealed zoning-code violations and eventually led to its closing last year. There were at least two other false starts, blamed on a lack of funds and dearth of residents.

The group's home on Eunice Avenue near Pine Hills is, figuratively speaking, the house that the addicts built.

To raise money, several of the local men stayed at a Hogar CREA in Wilmington, Del., sleeping on the floor and working low-paying jobs, mostly at a New Jersey theme park.

They raised about $25,000 for a down payment on the one-story house where the men now share bunk beds and have turned the large family room into a meeting area.

But just as the program was getting off the ground, Javier García, who had become the national president of Hogar CREA, has come under fire. Members of another chapter recently accused him in the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día of running up thousands of dollars on the organization's credit card. They also said he hadn't repaid a loan from another chapter.

Ruiz Haddock said the Orlando group's board asked García to resign and that he has agreed. No one had been appointed to replace him.

Meanwhile, the group's Puerto Rican headquarters, now led by the founder's sister and García's aunt Julia García, has threatened legal action and said it would sever its ties to the Orlando group. García did not respond to requests for comment.

"This problem has blown up in our faces," Tomás Lamberty, spokesman for Hogar CREA of Puerto Rico, said. "The group's funds have to be used to provide the residents services."

While the leadership vacuum is sorted out, Ruiz Haddock continues to work with about 12 addicts in various stages of recovery. They hope the flan sales will be enough to keep the program going.

"The men are here and they need us," said Ruiz Haddock, a recovering addict himself.

Daily group activities as prescribed by the founder involve a boot-camp-like discipline, believed to help the men develop the strength to fight their own addictions.

It is an unorthodox approach that does not involve licensed therapists, medication or psychologists.

The group director plots the men's days. They are in bed by 9:45 p.m. and up before sunrise. Their morning starts with prayer and repetition of affirmations. Then the group picks one of their own for "confrontation therapy," which consists of sitting in the center of the group while being chastised by peers.

"It's like tearing down a house. That's how we start. Then we build it up again," says Gilberto González, 38, a self-described former heroin addict who graduates from the program today..

In another group activity, residents share concerns, which are discussed by the group.

Dones told the group at a recent session that he started using marijuana in high school, but soon moved on to perico, slang for heroin. When that wasn't enough, he tried crack. By the time he joined the program, he was using cocaine and was estranged from his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

He burst out in tears as he spoke about his child. "She is learning to talk and she asks 'Daddy, how are you?' and I don't know what to tell her," Dones told them. "She's turning 3 and I won't be there to say happy birthday."

The other men comforted Dones, but reminded him to stick to what they call his "existential commitment," to do it for his daughter. Juan Reyes, 24, warned him not to disappoint her again.

"If you can't be there for her, buy her a doll, write her a letter, draw a little heart and send it to her," Reyes told him. "But you need this time for yourself, because we are broken men."

Dennis Edwards, 50, was the only Orlando native and non-Hispanic in the group.

Edwards, who drives the men to and from their daily flan sales, is a former Marine and Army nurse who ended up shooting heroin in the streets of Orlando, Tampa and other cities. His rehab peers call him "Vietnam," even though he served in Germany, Korea, Japan and Honduras. Edwards missed his grandmother's funeral and was too stoned to make it to his father's deathbed.

The home's military discipline, he says, has been good for him. He said he's been clean for more than a year, the longest period since he was honorably discharged in 1991. His hope is to be there for all of his 73-year-old mother's remaining days.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity," said Edwards. "Now, when I see the cops or a blue light behind me I don't panic. It's a relief in my heart, in my mind and in my soul."

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