By DOUG LIVINGSTON
Michael Malott was addicted to crack cocaine before he graduated high school.
At 18, he ran a knife along his stomach and used the wound to persuade a drug dealer that he had been robbed and could not pay up.
“I’ve [overdosed] I don’t know how many times,” said Malott, now 30. “And I kept using.”
But for Malott, “rock bottom” was found with the eyes of his son.
“Rock bottom” is a term most addicts use for that pivotal moment when they realize they need help — when they give up.
In February 2009, Malott was pulled over by police while leaving a Coitsville church. In the car was his son and a crack pipe. Leaning against the police car, Malott watched helplessly as tears streamed down his son’s face.
“All he knows about jail is it’s the most horrible place in the world, and dad’s never coming home again,” he said.
That’s rock bottom.
“We are so jacked-up coming off them streets. Our brains need to be redirected and focused on something else,” Malott said.
That something else for Malott and other men at Teen Challenge is God. Yet, while they are told God saves all, all are not saved.
Many, many men will enter Ohio Valley Teen Challenge. They come from throughout the Mahoning Valley. They also are sent here from other parts of the country.
They are a complex maze of personalities and problems. While different in many ways, they all have one thing in common: Addiction.
And most of the men will never graduate. They are arrogant, stubborn, problematic and, eventually, get out of the program — on their own or by OVTC. Since its March 2009 opening, 166 men have enrolled in OVTC.
“A lot of these guys were pipe fitters, mechanics and professionals,” said executive director Roy Barnett. “The bad things were beating up the good things. Most guys, when they came into this program, hated themselves.”
Of the 166, only 11 have graduated, 12 have completed the six-month restoration program, and 43 are current residents.
That leaves 100 who have either been thrown out or have left early. The majority dropped out in their first week. Only the humble, sincere and broken remain at Teen Challenge.
Their addiction and problems contribute to a cycle of crime and poverty that reaches into many Valley towns.
“There’s a great percentage of cases that we deal with that are drug related, 85 percent, I’d say,” said Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court. “Almost all burglaries and thefts and robberies involve people messed up on drugs anymore. And a lot of the murders that are committed are drug-related or gang-related.”
Judge Krichbaum and other judges send men to Teen Challenge as a last hope before jail. Other men are pushed into the program by a parent or wife. And others arrive voluntarily.
They have lived in shelters and on the streets. They have stolen from their families and friends, who have disowned them. The guys they used to run with consider them sellouts and phonies.
“That whole week of eating out of Dumpsters,” Anthony Sanders said, “well, I’ve been doing that. And I’ve been living under the Summit Street bridge because I’ve been hiding from dope dealers that I’ve robbed.”
Sanders, 23, of Warren, is in the program for a second time. When he first entered, religion overwhelmed him. He also was confused. He couldn’t imagine addicts like him being sober and happy.
So he left. Except for the handful of men in there for court purposes, the majority have nothing keeping them in OVTC. They can quit whenever they want.
When Sanders quit, his mother refused to take him, so he was delivered to the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley.
Rescue Mission official Ron Starcher has seen grown men stagger into the mission under the humbling weight of drug and alcohol addiction. Starcher said many of these men have been through a Teen Challenge facility before.
They are called rehab jumpers. They constantly bounce from 30- to 90- to 120-day rehabilitation programs only to end up back on the drug.
Families have told Bob Pavlich, the OVTC director of operations, “I’ve spent $60,000 on my son.” Pavlich, 32, is a graduate of Teen Challenge and one of 15 staff members who run the facility.
The men Pavlich preaches the gospel to have left behind family to undergo treatment at OVTC. But most have lost their families to drug and alcohol addiction long before they enrolled in the program.
“My mom, my dad — I burned a lot of bridges with them,” said OVTC resident Dennis McKenney, 26, who grew up on Youngstown’s West Side.
He has spent nine months in the program. His ex-girlfriend, Kayla Chaney, gave birth to his daughter in that time. On July 19, Matilda Reign McKenney was born at St. Elizabeth Health Center. Less than a mile away, her father paced back and forth at OVTC.
Since OVTC guidelines prohibit the men from contact with anyone but immediate family, he was not allowed to attend his daughter’s birth. Officials eventually took McKenney to the hospital to see her, and his parents bring his daughter to the center on Saturday visits if he wants to see her.
Though Chaney is reluctant to jump back into a relationship with McKenney, she is sure of one thing: If he ever uses again, “I don’t want him around the baby,” she said.
Some of the men have struggled with family their entire lives.
The Repko brothers, Jesse, 29, and Aaron, 22, grew up in Cortland with the odds stacked against them.
Their parents were 16 and 17 years old when they had Jesse, the oldest of four brothers.
“They were addicted from the start,” Jesse said. “They just kept doing what they always knew. … We felt the repercussions.”
Children services removed the boys from their mother’s custody in 1994 because of neglect. Their grandparents stepped in to raise them.
Aaron and Jesse have one brother incarcerated in Florida and another who died at 21 after leading a troubled life. The two survive with the help of each other, the program and their grandparents, who attended Jesse’s July graduation.
The men at OVTC are primarily white. There are only three black residents.
OVTC officials suggest that black and Latino families are more likely to allow a drug-addicted son or husband to live with them.
Barnett admits their small minority population is strange. At the Chicago Teen Challenge where Barnett came from, the numbers were even — a third white, a third Hispanic and a third black.
The percentage of whites also is unusually high compared to other Valley agencies.
The Rescue Mission is comprised of predominantly 30- to 45-year-old black males. And most of these men have no money and no families left, said the mission’s Starcher.
State correctional facilities and other Valley drug rehabilitation centers such as Turning Point Solutions, Neil Kennedy and Meridian Services have a clientele of nearly equal numbers of blacks and whites
Richard Billak, executive director of Community Corrections Association, also touts equal numbers.
CCA, an alternative-to-jail program which serves Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, has provided academic instruction and life-skills training for inmates. Its offerings have included substance-abuse education, anger management, domestic-violence prevention, parenting classes and remedial classroom driving instruction to get driver’s licenses reinstated.
OVTC dropout rates are another source of disparity.
While 16 percent of the court-ordered residents at CCA have failed to complete the government-funded program, more than 60 percent have left the OVTC program since it opened in March 2009.
But for the 43 men who remain, the program is refuge from their addiction. Alcohol and drugs have torn their lives and their families apart.
“I’m a convicted felon, two-bit thief, drug addict,” Sanders said. “But, by the grace of God, I’m still breathing.”
This series continues Saturday with Greg, Bob and Anthony. On Sunday, we will conclude the story on OVTC.
The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.