2017-10-19 / Features

Once An Inmate, She Helps Others Struggling With Addiction

By Brett Sholtis
YORK DAILY RECORD

YORK, Pa. (AP) – To this day, Cheryl Peterson- Jacquez struggles to explain why, at 42 years old, she decided to try cocaine.

At the time, her marriage was in turmoil, and she'd been diagnosed with cervical precancerous lesions. Friends were doing the drug at a party, and she was looking for a distraction.

She didn’t expect to get addicted.

“Next thing you know I try a line, and then it’s the next line and the next line,” Peterson-Jacquez said. “Before you know it, I'm meeting dealers myself.”

When she tried that first line, Peterson-Jacquez was married, a mother of two sons, and was employed as an accountant. She hid her addiction from her family for a while, but after she started selling cocaine to fund her habit, she was arrested for possession with intent to deliver.

Those charges got her three years in state prison. When she got out, she learned she'd gotten some new titles: Felon. Criminal. Unemployable.

After fighting to gain an employer’s trust, she’s turned her life around, and now she’s helping other women return to society after they're released from prison.

The 55-year-old from York has started a program to help female inmates at York County Prison, especially those who struggle with addiction, to stay on the right path.

Peterson- Jacquez has gotten 11 other volunteers, all women, to help work with inmates who want to participate. After those inmates are released, the volunteers stay in contact with them for at least six months.

The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, but “the one thing they all possess is the belief in empowering women and giving them a second chance,” Peterson-Jacquez said.

Peterson- Jacquez and the other volunteers aren’t paid, and the inmates aren’t required to participate, she said. For Peterson-Jacquez, she helps herself by helping others. For the inmates, it’s all about them wanting to help themselves.

“Their incentive is their own personal choice of wanting a better life,” she said. “The reward comes from their own choices.”

For 24-year-old Victoria Lau, the program is one more way to fight her addiction.

In December 2016, Lau overdosed on heroin while parked in her car. Witnesses heard her infant son crying in the car’s backseat, York Area Regional police said. A paramedic revived her with naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

Lau was 20 when she started taking pills, she said in a recent interview. Within about a month, she realized she was addicted to them.

Lau went from an “outgoing, friendly” person who got along with others to a withdrawn, irresponsible person, she said.

Still, she said she'd never put a needle in her arm. Within two years, she did.

After her first time in prison, Lau was clean for a year and participated in York County’s drug court. But she relapsed. She can’t even quite explain why. “Addiction takes a hold of you,” she said.

Lau fears relapse and wants to surround herself with positive people. “She gives me a lot of hope and inspiration,” she said of Peterson Jacquez.

After three months in prison, Lau was on the verge of release. Thanks to a supportive employer, she’s managed to keep her job. She hopes to stay clean, and like others in the program, she hopes to pay it forward by volunteering to help others.

Lau said she’s full of guilt and remorse for putting her son at risk.

Still, for those who have never known someone with addiction, Lau wants people to understand that addicts aren’t bad people – just people who made a bad decision.

“I hope they never have to see their sons or daughters go through it, because it’s terrible,” Lau said.

Not all inmates have been as eager as Lau to change, Peterson-Jacquez said. Two months since she launched the program, she and the other volunteers have worked with about 25 people, and at least three have dropped out of contact since leaving prison.

However, others have gone on to school, employment and additional counseling. Some have become active in their churches and local communities.

The women face obstacles. They're often returning to toxic environments, and they struggle to have the self- esteem to stay away from bad influences.

Sometimes the difference between relapse and success can come down to one person who believes in you, Peterson Jacquez said.

“You have to know someone out there is willing to give you another chance,” she said. “Someone who knows this does not have to define who you are for the rest of your life.”

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