Thursday, May 27, 2010

Once a Homeless Drug Addict, Man now Helps Others

Milwaukee Journal

For too many years, Daviene Smittie was lost in a haze of drugs, crime and homelessness.

"The drugs," he knows now that his mind is clear, "were doing me. I allowed drugs to take over my life."

Not anymore. The man with the last name that doubles perfectly as a nickname is now working as a substance abuse counselor himself. He has a home and a college degree and a valid driver's license. He has a wife.

At age 49, Smittie has his dignity back.

How did he do it? He points to several factors.

First of all, he was lucky to come from a functional family. Growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., he was the youngest of eight children born to loving parents who took him to church and stressed the value of education and hard work. He finished high school and two years of college.

Second was a stinging statement spoken to him by a fellow inmate during one of the many times he went to jail, mostly for misdemeanor stuff such as drug paraphernalia, disorderly conduct and battery.

"This young man, I helped him with his case a lot. He said to me, 'Mr. Smittie, it seems like every time I hear you talk, you talk about drugs.' Right then and there, I didn't want drugs to be part of my life anymore."

That resolve was interrupted by a few more stumbles on the way. But then the third fortuitous thing happened. About six years ago, a raggedy and unshaven Smittie was walking down an east side street in Milwaukee when he met Jim Salinsky, who was working in his front yard.

"I said, 'Hey, what are you doing?' He said, 'I'm doing a flower bed.' I said, 'I need to make a few bucks. Would you mind a hand?' I really don't know what was in him to say, 'OK, c'mon,' " Smittie said.

Salinsky, 47, a global Webmaster at GE Healthcare, said Smittie told him he was homeless and needed money to rent a room.

"As I ran out of projects for him, I got to know him as a gentle and intelligent man. I learned about his drug abuse background and many run-ins with the law," he said.

Salinsky helped him get a job as a custodian at his synagogue, Congregation Sinai. But Smittie had one more setback in him. He was arrested for selling crack cocaine to an undercover police officer on the city's north side. Back to jail he went for six months.

He got out in 2006 and headed back to see Salinsky, who recalls, "Soon after he was released, we were sitting at my kitchen table, and he told me that he wanted to help others in his situation as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. We researched what training he would need, what the different levels of certification were, etc."

During one of Smittie's own trips through drug rehab in Wisconsin, a counselor told him he needed to be in a job where he could help people. He learned about addiction the hard way, starting out drinking and smoking pot in his teens and moving on to crack cocaine.

He moved to Milwaukee in the early 1990s, and brought his bad habits with him.

"It cost me a lot. It cost me some good relationships. It cost me some jobs. It cost me some friction in the family," including a sister who lived in Milwaukee and sometimes had to use tough love and turn Smittie away from her home. He would stay at a homeless shelter or live on the street.

In 2006, Smittie met a woman, Sandy, through church. Both had just lost a sibling to illness. They were drawn together. They married in 2007, and they now live in West Allis.

Sandy Smittie doesn't drink and says she never tried street drugs. She's assistant manager of Chuck E. Cheese in West Allis, and she hopes to open her own bakery someday. She has watched her husband blossom, especially in his profession.

"He's very passionate about it, passionate with a capital P," she said. And if anything at work frustrates him, it's that he can't fix everybody right away.

In the early days of their relationship, he would want to drive through the old neighborhoods to remind himself how far he had come. But that urge passed. He's dedicated to his recovery. "He's clean for a day, that's his mantra," Sandy said.

Smittie has worked and trained at a variety of agencies. These days he does counseling and assessment at M&S Clinical Services, ironically one of the places he came to for help for his own crack addiction treatment. Now, he has an office there. He's careful about mentioning his past to clients; sometimes it raises his street cred, but it also can cut into the respect he gets.

After three years of weekend classes, he just earned a bachelor's degree from Springfield College School of Human Services, which has a campus in downtown Milwaukee.

Smittie is licensed by the state as a Wisconsin substance abuse treatment counselor in training, and he's studying for the next level of certification. He's thinking about shooting for a master's degree.

Salinsky, or Dr. J as Smittie calls him, is proud of what his friend has accomplished.

"The easiest thing in the world," Salinsky said, "is to write a check and imagine that you're making a difference in someone's life. The more challenging thing is to get involved, get informed and learn what might motivate that person to help himself."

For too long, Smittie had nothing to show for his life, he said. But he's modest about his success.

"People do this every day, man. I'm not doing anything spectacular. I'm just doing what I need to move on with my life."

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