THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

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(Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction affects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)

(Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction affects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)

It has been said it takes more than a locked door and barred windows to make a prison. It has also been said it takes more than sheer force of will to be truly free, especially when the prison is one of addiction.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: A changed man, Michael Armijo stands in front of the church he calls home — Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley. Now a certified chaplain, Armijo supports people working to overcome addiction and helps run the Belen church’s New Thirst addiction meetings. Armijo is part of a group working to establish the Valencia County Re-entry Network, a support system for men and women re-entering the community after being incarcerated.

While the decision to get clean and sober must start with the individual, the journey to a different life is best made with a support system.

And since many who struggle with addiction end up in jail or prison, a local group is trying to form a network of support to ease the return from incarcerated life back into the community.

The members of the group aren’t part of the official corrections system, they aren’t licensed experts with degrees. They are men and women of faith who have one very important thing in common — they have walked the path that led to a clean, sober life and want to help others make that same journey.

Alonzo Garcia served nearly a year in jail on possession charges. Then he turned around and went right back. But this time it was to minister to those who were still imprisoned by addiction.

Now, more than seven years after finding God and joy, Garcia is hoping to help form a network that will welcome people back into the community and give them the support they need.

“We need someone who, when these guys come back, can just be there and love on them for a year or so,” Garcia said.

In January, Garcia sent out a letter to local pastors, inviting them to be a part of a statewide effort to provide re-entry services to men and women being released from jail and prison into the community — to form the Valencia County Re-entry Network.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Sharing a passion for music, God and helping others, Dearl Snyder, on guitar, is joined on the drums by Alonzo Garcia as they warm up for the weekly Freedom Night meeting at Covenant Life Community Church. The two men are part of a local group working to form the Valencia County Re-entry Network to help men and women transition back into the community after being incarcerated.

To date, the network is still a work in progress.

“It’s a greater challenge than I thought it would be,” Garcia said. “I thought everyone would see the inherent need and say, ‘How can I help?’”

While the network hasn’t gelled like he had hoped, Garcia and others, are still moving forward with their effort.

One hurdle Garcia sees is the different religious denominations having “their own flow, their own way. Everyone seems to be pulling for their own ‘brand.’ And that’s unfortunate,” he said. “I am challenged by that personally.”

One thing that might help the network become a reality is a recent volunteer networking conference in Albuquerque. It was attended by prison wardens from across the state and New Mexico Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel.

“It was so great to see the interest,” Garcia said.

While at the conference, he learned what he called an amazing statistic.

“They said 95 percent of everyone incarcerated will eventually be released,” he said. “Which begs the question of how can our communities help? How are we prepared to help?”

Right now, there are about 1,200 men in the state prison facilities in the county and, at times, nearly 200 men and women in the Valencia County Detention Center, Garcia said.

He said the network will help bridge the gap for people coming out of jail and prison, to help them step through the uncertainty of not knowing what to do now they aren’t behind bars, so they can move forward with their life, not backward to incarceration.

“If that statistic is accurate and 95 percent will be released back into your community, your neighborhood, they’re already here. Their kids and families are here,” Garcia said. “We need people who have the heart for this; to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Dearl Snyder, a member of the Covenant Life Community Church, attended the conference with Garcia.

“I’m glad they were there listening. There was a lot of support and good ideas,” Snyder said.

By involving the people and organizations that oversee inmates, Snyder said those starting the re-entry network are hoping to show that re-integration begins while people are still in prison.

“These guys can’t just sit there 24 hours a day,” he said. “There needs to be programs to help them learn skills they can use after they are released. So they can go to an employer and at least say, ‘I can do this.’ Do you know how hard it is for a felon to find a job?”

Snyder, 49, knows just how hard it is. A native of Texas and raised in Roswell, Snyder was in his late 30s when he turned to drugs.

Between 2005 and 2007, Snyder’s life was hit with a series of hard knocks — his ex-wife’s current husband adopted Snyder’s two children. On probation in Texas, Snyder couldn’t travel to Roswell in time for the court date.

His mother died in 2007, his depression and bipolar disorder worsened and, by 2010, he had violated his probation and was sentenced to 19 months in the Honor Farm in Los Lunas.

When he finished his time in prison, Snyder spent six months in the New Mexico Mens’ Recovery Academy, also in Los Lunas.

“I knew about addiction,” Snyder said.

He saw the effects on his own family in the form of alcoholic stepfathers and cousins who overdosed and died.

When he was at the recovery academy, Snyder met Garcia. He says the two shared a connection — music in their blood. Many of Snyder’s relatives were musicians, but his single mother couldn’t afford music lessons.

“I always wanted to learn how to play the guitar,” he said.

Snyder is enrolled in classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, working on a music education degree.

“I want to give lessons to kids who are like me; maybe they can’t afford them. I don’t care if they can pay,” Snyder said.

After his release from the academy, Snyder, like many other recently released inmates, had nothing — nowhere to go, no one to rely on, no help.

One of the ironies Snyder touched on is something that is all too familiar to people fresh out of incarceration — in programs like the recovery academy, the men spend months building relationships and support networks with their fellow inmates.

But once they are back on the streets, they can no longer associate with felons still “on paper,” those still on probation or parole.

“You go through all this work to build these relationships, but then you have no one to rely on financially, mentally, spiritually,” Snyder said. “And you need it. Without it, you end up back in the corrections system.”

Snyder, who says he is a “new man in Christ,” emphasized that finding a support group — faith-based or otherwise — is important for those who have struggled with addiction and are now coming back to their communities.

Garcia leads Freedom Night, a support group for men and women working to be free from addiction. It starts at 7 p.m. every Friday at the Covenant Life Community Church, 1119 N.M. 314 SW, Los Lunas.

Snyder says one of the fundamental keys to the success of Freedom Night and other programs like it is the participants’ ability to take responsibility for their actions but set aside the guilt and negativity of who they were.

“To say you are an alcoholic or an addict is to speak negativity into your life, and you will continue to be that,” he said. “And you will end up failing. You have to speak positively about yourself. I’m not afraid of who I was and I know who I am now.”

Michael Armijo, 44, now lives a life of freedom and joy. But it wasn’t always like that, he says. Starting with marijuana in middle school, Armijo said his drug use quickly escalated to crank cocaine, then speed, ending with heroin and a willingness to put anything in his arm.

In 2003, after being picked up on a probation violation, Armijo was introduced to God in jail. He and a handful of other inmates at the county detention center would get together for informal Bible study.

One night the corrections officers came to his cell and told him and another inmate to get dressed. Armijo asked where they were going.

“They said, ‘You’ll find out when we get there,’” was the response, he said.

Despite the ominous beginning, Armijo said he ended up right where he needed to be — in the Metro Detention Center in Albuquerque, the newest member of “God’s Pod.” The pod is part of the late Pastor Greg Griego’s prison ministry legacy.

“We walked into the pod and there were these guys, like 80 guys just standing there, singing praise songs,” Armijo remembers. “It was so peaceful.”

On Feb. 10, 2004, Armijo was released and sent home to Valencia County. The Adelino native immediately walked into Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley in Belen. It was a Tuesday evening and he’s been there ever since, helping where he could, doing everything from pulling weeds to helping with renovations to the sanctuary.

In the fall of that same year, Armijo was asked to pray on joining the staff. He did and hasn’t looked back.

Armijo is now proud to say his is a senior chaplain, accredited through the International Fellowship of Chaplains. He also helps lead the New Thirst addiction meetings at 7 p.m. every Friday at Calvary Chapel, 19381 N.M. 314, Belen.

“They have it on Friday night for a reason,” he says with a knowing smile. “Of course, when you’re in the life, every night is Friday night. Two in the morning on a Tuesday is Friday night.”

Armijo said once someone gets out of jail, prison or even a recovery program, they need to stay away from the people who used to call themselves their friends.

“People will say ‘Oh, I love you man; I’ll go to jail for you.’ But when I was in jail, who put money on my books, visited? None of my friends. My mom did, but not them,” he said.

Those looking for support need to plug in to a local church, Armijo said.

“Find one that you’re comfortable at and see where God takes you,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends when I found God. I was lonely. But the longer I was here, the more friendships I built. I was in every Bible class they had here.”

Part of what the people building the re-entry network are hoping to accomplish is to put together a week’s worth of positive, supportive activities, Armijo said.

“Part of what they are hoping to do is have something to do, somewhere to go every night,” he said. “But you have to plug in and do the work. When God frees you from addiction or whatever your vice is, other things are revealed that you need to work on.

“When you take away the addiction it’s not all running through the daisies,” Armijo said. “You have to deal with everything else.”

To be a part of the Valencia County Re-entry Network, contact Alonzo Garcia by email at d.a.garcia72@gmail.com or by phone at 818-3586.

Organizers for the re-entry network meet at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of every month at the Covenant Life Community Church in Los Lunas.


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