By DOUG LIVINGSTON
The first steps of a new life are the toughest — from newborns on up.
It’s just as difficult for addicts.
“I was holding on to things when I first got in here,” Anthony Sanders said.
“When I first got here, I was miserable; I was bitter,” Greg Todd said.
What they held onto and felt was contempt and fear. They were unable to feel anything else.
Sanders, Todd and Bob Pavlich were incapable of feeling guilty when they lied or stole, or when they hurt the ones they love. Their addiction stripped them of their humanity.
Each had similar reasons for entering Youngstown’s Ohio Valley Teen Challenge faith-based residential center. They couldn’t face the ones they loved. They couldn’t stay off the streets or out of jail.
They couldn’t face themselves.
The three entered Teen Challenge kicking and biting. In the program, each broke down. Each got better. But before they entered, they would each hit what drug addicts call “the bottom.”
The day before Todd was arrested for the last time, he went to his mother’s house to use the phone. His brother was home, struggling with a debilitating heart attack suffered two years prior.
“I’m on the phone, [my brother] comes around the corner and hits me with this stick, splits my head open, hits me with about 50 punches to the face, calls the cops on me ’cause he knows I got a warrant.”
Todd was arrested. He stood before the judge bloody and battered. He was given 91⁄2 months.
After six months behind bars, Todd received a visit from a cousin he had not seen in more than a decade.
“I knew that person sitting at the county jail or using wasn’t my little cousin,” Elaine Kloss said. “It broke my heart to see him in there. But I knew that he did it to himself.”
She told Todd about Teen Challenge. The seed was planted.
For Sanders, he would spend six months in jail for his four warrants. When he was released, he suggested Teen Challenge to his probation officer after failing a drug test.
He entered the program in October with no intention of ever finishing. Sanders told Pavlich, who is a director at the center, that he had to leave because of medical reasons.
Two hours after leaving the center, Sanders was high.
In the next 20 days, Sanders would again hide. It was not from the police this time, but from the heroin dealers he had robbed in his three weeks out of OVTC.
Sanders sneaked by armed drug dealers and slipped into closets. He knocked on doors as an accomplice waited behind him with a shotgun. Nothing would keep him from getting high.
After sleeping under the Summit Street bridge in Warren for days, Sanders phoned Pavlich, begging to be readmitted.
Pavlich told him to come back to the center. Why shouldn’t he have? Pavlich was no different than Sanders when he first entered the program.
In 2005, Pavlich flew from Pittsburgh to the Teen Challenge center in Muskegon, Mich.
He sat at the Pittsburgh International Airport while his flight was delayed two hours. He drank at the bar with a man until the two fought. He was nearly thrown out of the airport for public intoxication.
That is how Pavlich entered the program, drunk and running from life.
Today, Pavlich wakes up next to his wife of two years. He returns to Poland Seminary High School twice a year to teach students about the consequences of drug and alcohol addiction.
When he stands before a church audience, he spouts Scripture and preaches gospel. All the while his wife, sitting in the pews, still can’t wrap her mind around the man he used to be.
“Because he’s so strong on the Lord,” Bob’s wife, Gail Pavlich said, “It’s so hard to believe that his life was like that.”
She does believe there is a cure for addiction, and her husband is evidence of it.
“I believe once you’re set free, you’re cured,” she said.
Pavlich is still boisterous. He cracks jokes and calls everyone “bro” — just like the old days. But his family and friends trust him now.
In April, Pavlich, who used to fight anyone that wronged his sister, will preside over her wedding.
When Todd entered the program, he thought the men were crazy. They were always hugging and preaching. “I thought they were weak-minded people who were just clinging on to something,” he said.
Todd broke down.
After experiencing what he can only describe as divine intervention, Todd said he finally swallowed his pride during chapel service one morning.
“I cried like a little kid for an hour. I remember getting mad at myself because I thought everybody was watching.”
Now Todd plays in the gospel band every Wednesday night.
He is quiet. He always has been. But he is humble now, not contemptible.
When Sanders wakes up today, his sides are often swollen from liver damage caused by prescription drug abuse. His skin is occasionally jaundiced from the hepatitis he received using a dirty needle.
But Sanders said he would rather feel the discomfort of his past transgressions than live another day under the influence of drugs.
“I always felt in my old ways, before I gave my life to Christ, that I was entitled,” he said. “I was entitled to know what goes on tomorrow. I’m entitled to know what you’re doing, what this person is doing or where I’m going to be at in three months.”
His brother and sister are talking to him again. In July, his mother brought her 3-year-old grandson to OVTC to visit Sanders, who saw his son for the first time in more than a year.
Sanders is making amends with his past. He is struggling to forgive his father. Mostly, he struggles to forgive himself for the terrible things he has put his family through.
“It’s the emotional thievery that you do that’s the worst,” he said. “Robbing them of their child. … You’ll never get that back.”
Even if Sanders graduates, his mother, Karen Petro, said she might never feel comfortable leaving Sanders alone in her home.
She has been robbed of her child, but she has gained a grandchild. The boy — with blond hair and blue eyes — bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony.
“It’s like childhood revisited all over again,” she said.
On Sunday, we conclude the OVTC series.
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.