‘One of the best kept secrets’

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They come from all across the state — Las Cruces, Artesia, Albuquerque — and from our communities here in Valencia County.

They are a group of men who know each other by name and have built a close camaraderie during their journey.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: To support and encourage their clients’ recovery, the New Mexico Men’s Recovery Academy in Los Lunas hosted a holiday celebration so that the men in the program could see their families for the holidays. Pictured, from left, are Loretta and Johnny Buffalow, Roxanne Robustelli, Tyler Martin, 11, Landon Martin, Jayden Martin, 2, and Amber, mother of Tyler and Jayden. Landon is at the academy to begin his recovery from heroin addiction.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: To support and encourage their clients’ recovery, the New Mexico Men’s Recovery Academy in Los Lunas hosted a holiday celebration so that the men in the program could see their families for the holidays. Pictured, from left, are Loretta and Johnny Buffalow, Roxanne Robustelli, Tyler Martin, 11, Landon Martin, Jayden Martin, 2, and Amber, mother of Tyler and Jayden. Landon is at the academy to begin his recovery from heroin addiction.

These 70-plus men are on a journey of recovery, of change, of reconnecting with their families and of making a difference with their lives.

The journey begins with their enrollment in the New Mexico Men’s Recovery Academy on the state campus in Los Lunas.

The six month men’s-only program accepts individuals on probation or parole based on a referral from the New Mexico Probation and Parole Division.

“The clientele here are on probation or parole. They are supervised in the community, but they are not in prison, not locked down, not serving a sentence,” said Mike Estrada, the community corrections administrator for probation and parole.

Estrada explains that probation is supervision instead of incarceration, and parole is supervision after prison.

“This is a therapeutic community,” Estrada said.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Michael Gill, Bobby Solis and Dustin Chavez get into the spirit of the season decorating sugar cookies at the New Mexico Men’s Recovery Academy’s holiday celebration. The three men, from Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Los Lunas respectively, are at the academy to learn life skills and coping mechanisms that will lead to a productive future.

During their first three months in the program, participants stay on the campus, Estrada said, so they can focus on the program.

As they progress, the men go out in the community to do shopping, see doctors, visit their families if they are near by and look for a job.

They also do community service projects. The men from the NMMRA helped with the restoration of the San Antonio Catholic Church in Los Lentes.

The NMMRA’s “other half” — the New Mexico Women’s Recovery Academy — was housed at the state campus from 2006 to 2009. That program moved to Albuquerque and the men’s academy came in from Ft. Stanton.

They are the only two programs of their kind in the state.

“We are one of the best kept secrets,” said Debra Mobley-Sadler, the director of the men’s and women’s programs.

The wry twist of her lips tells you she wishes the programs weren’t quite so well hidden.

Because the whole focus of the academy’s program is to help men and women reintegrate with their communities and reconnect with their families, the programs hold family days every month.

And this month’s family day, last Friday afternoon, was especially significant, coming just before Christmas.

The day started with a welcome to the families, thanking them for their support.

“Your support shows there is a place to return. A place of friendship and compassion,” Estrada said. “We are very grateful for the support you’ve shown to these families and the greater community.”

Then it was time for fun.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday celebration, a massive “Family Feud” set had been built using the best quality paper and cardboard money could buy. That it was a long way from the actual $1.2 million set didn’t seem to phase the families.

Kids young and old decorated sugar cookies with too much icing and red, white and green sprinkles. Santa Claus made an appearance for a photo-op by the Christmas tree with all who were willing, while the joyous laughter rang out.

There was also a lot of hugs, understanding nods, awkward pats on the back and some tears.

It was a day for the men in the program to remember what they were all fighting to get back.

Edward Torres has been clean for two years. But after he went back to prison on a parole violation, he knew he had to take some proactive steps.

“When I was getting ready to get out, I told my parole officer I wanted to get some help before I was out on the streets,” Torres said.

Torres, from Mountainair, says of all the courses and classes he has taken in his three months in the program, the victim impact was the toughest.

“It’s tough. It makes you look at a lot of things,” he said.

Another client passing in the hallway agrees.

“You look at pictures of people, children who have been abused. People who have been bitten even,” the man says.

And the looking is internal as well, Torres says.

“You realize you did all that, everything,” he said. “This is about getting back to family. The clean way is the best way, the only way.”

Manuel Lopez, from Belen, said he entered the NMMRA to further his recovery and “learn how to live a sober and healthy life.” Lopez said he is getting help with his use of alcohol.

“There are a lot of things that go with recovery,” Lopez said.

In the program, the men are given a full gamut of skills to help them cope with the pressures that might cause them to return to bad behaviors, but it also gives them basic life skills.

Along with anger management, Lopez has taken cooking courses through the local extension service’s ICAN program, earned a food handlers certificate and gotten creative with the academy’s arts and crafts opportunities.

The crafts made by the men at the academy are sold at the Peralta Memorial United Methodist Church and profits are used to buy more materials.

Both men say the staff at the NMMRA are supportive and always available to talk.

“They will always talk to you and give really good advice,” Lopez said.

Although it’s tough being away from their families, Torres and Lopez also agree that the alternative is worse.

“It’s better than jail,” Torres says. “It works if you want it to.”

And while they can’t see most of their family right now, they still have each other — Torres and Lopez are cousins.

After he completes the program, Lopez says he plans to take care of his two grandfathers and his father.

“I’ll finally be off probation,” says the 25 year old. “I’m going to make this the last time. I’ve been on probation since high school.”

At 41, Torres says recovery actually gets a little easier as you get older.

“You realize you just can’t do this stuff anymore. I’ve done some stupid stuff,” he said. “I’ve got my higher power now — Jesus Christ — so I just get in touch with that and work my program.”

At 19, Dylan DelCampo, of Albuquerque, says he is happy he was “caught young” and still has a chance to do something positive with his life.

His parents died when he was young — his mother died when he was 13, succumbing to her own addictions when she mixed alcohol and Xanax, and four years later, DelCampo lost his father to cancer.

During the last several months of his father’s life, DelCampo was his primary caregiver.

“I started skipping school and forging his signature on the slips,” DelCampo said. “I basically dropped out of school to take him to the hospital, his doctors appointments. He couldn’t do it.”

After his father’s death, the teenager came to New Mexico, leaving the ocean of West Palm Beach, Fla., behind to stay with his aunt.

He used heroin for about a year, then switched to meth when he came out of the closet. Caught writing bad checks, DelCampo faced forgery and fraud charges. He was given probation.

DelCampo violated the terms of his probation — seven times.

Looking at one last chance to avoid incarceration, he was offered the chance to go to NMMRA. The judge gave him a suspended sentence on the fraud charges, and dropped the felony forgery charges.

If DelCampo completes the academy’s program successfully, the misdemeanor fraud charges will be taken off his record.

He has 3 1/2 months of probation left and a very clear plan for his future. He is just four credits away from getting his high school diploma from Gordon Bernell Charter School in Albuquerque. Then he plans to enroll in CNM’s culinary arts program.

“I am very determined with my education,” DelCampo said.

While at the NMMRA, he works in the kitchen serving and cooking, and has earned his food handlers’ certificate.

In addition to working towards a viable career, DelCampo is also learning to control his anger.

“I lash out at people. Some people will antagonize me about my sexual orientation and I will just lash out at them,” he said. “I’m trying to learn to control that.”

The victim impact class has also given DelCampo a lot of insight into himself and his behavior.

“It opened up a lot of wounds I thought were healed a long time ago,” he said. “It’s like a razor blade tearing right through.”

With much of his immediate family gone, he is working to rebuild his relationship with his older brother who is in the Marine Corps.

“I haven’t spoken to him in about a year,” he said. “I’m starting to rebuild that relationship, so that’s good.”

Jayden Martin wants to touch the ceiling. The 2 year old sports a sticker of Lightening McQueen on his red turtleneck. He squirms in his father’s arms stretching his small hands towards the white, textured ceiling.

Landon Martin lifts him high. Contact is made, squeals and giggles commence. Jayden races off to join his grandparents and mother, who are locked in fierce competition for a canister of gourmet popcorn if they are crowned “Family Feud” champions.

At 32, Martin is at the academy for the second time. He began in February the first time, and by June was regularly leaving the campus for medical treatments.

“I messed up,” Martin admits. “I didn’t remember my plan and I was around the wrong people.”

A recovering heroin addict, Martin says he walked in on someone getting high in a bathroom.

“Then I was high and regretting it,” he says.

Landon told his parole officer immediately, and got back in the program in October. The Los Lunas resident is now being prescribed Suboxone, a medication which, he says, helps with the withdrawal from and cravings for heroin.

“This is all about being with my family, my boys,” Martin says. “I see what’s important, how my family and kids lost respect for me, how I hurt my girl.”

Much of that realization came from a victims impact class that all clients take. In it, they are shown the “ripple effect” of their actions and decisions.

“My kids had me taken away from them,” he said.

Martin says for everyone in the program, “Family is so important at this time in our lives.”

He calls the academy a “safe place” and an “opportunity.”

“It just sucks you have to go to jail to get here,” Martin says.

Once he completes the program, Martin plans to start making a life with his two boys, Jayden and Tyler, 11, and their mother, Amber.

During his time at the NMMRA, Martin has taken courses in anger management and parenting.

“It’s time for me to be a parent. Before, I was a father, but now it’s time to be a parent,” he said.

Tyler says he has seen his father change — change for the better.

“He’s not the same person,” Tyler said.

When he was using, Tyler remembers his father being gone for days.

“I didn’t know where he was, if he was coming back,” he said. Tyler pauses, looking down. “If he loved me anymore.”

Martin sits on the floor with Jayden, playing with stickers, his own head down as his parents, aunt and Amber talk about his addiction and recovery.

“It was hell,” his aunt, Roxanne Robustelle, says bluntly.

Martin’s father, Johnny Buffalow, says there needs to be more programs like this, programs that don’t rely on the prison system.

“There aren’t enough. Not nearly enough,” Buffalow says.

Loretta Buffalow, Martin’s mother, says as he has begun recovery, instead of daily fights with her son, she sees there has been something “embedded” in his mind.

“He understands he can’t just walk away,” Loretta said.

Amber, who has been with Martin for 15 years, knows both sides of the journey he is taking. She has been clean for three years.

“It’s been rough,” Amber says, in perhaps what can be considered a huge understatement. “It’s been hard, especially with him using and me clean.”

“She knows what we experienced,” Loretta said.

And even with all they’ve experienced, they are still family with the usual jokes and good-natured ribbing as they prepare for a picture by the tree.

As the holiday celebration winds down, families begin to depart. Jayden inspects the faux Christmas presents under the tree one more time, clad in his sock-monkey hat.

“It’s time for you guys to go,” Martin says to Jayden, his voice breaking. “Come give Daddy a hug.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.