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Lifted out of addiction

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

When it was time for Jerome Candelaria to be released from jail, he begged the judge to let him stay.

When it was time for Jerome Candelaria to be released from jail, he begged the judge to let him stay.

“I said, ‘Ma’am, I can’t do this no more,’ ” he said. He was tired of going back to the streets and his enemy – crystal methamphetamine.

Johnny Armijo of Albuquerque lifts weights during an Addicts2Athletes program last week

Johnny Armijo of Albuquerque lifts weights during an Addicts2Athletes program last week. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

So the judge held Candelaria until a place opened up for him with the Salvation Army, where he was introduced to Addicts2Athletes, or A2A.

“It’s helped my mind take a turn for the better,” Candelaria said of the program, which combines exercise with therapy. “During my workout, I’m free – free of my addiction, free of all the bad choices.”

Founded in Pueblo, Colo., A2A uses a holistic approach for people recovering from addiction to help “unite mind, body and spirit through all recovery philosophies, education and exercise.”

Counselor Tim Allen, right, facilitates the A2A program for participants recovering from addiction

Counselor Tim Allen, right, facilitates the A2A program for participants recovering from addiction.

Candelaria finished the eight-week program and participated in a graduation ceremony Thursday night. It’s also his sixth month of sobriety, after he had used drugs since he was 13, had numerous stints in jail and lost his family and three kids.

“Our choices, especially that young, are like planting seeds,” he said. “Then it takes root and it grows – those choices and the effects of doing drugs and using, it’s going to make a big tree for you down the road.”

Clarity for therapy

The exercise gives him the clarity to focus on the therapy that follows and get to the root of his addiction, Candelaria said. Each session of A2A, twice a week, involves an hour of exercise at a gym followed by an hour of education.

“To spend time with people who are focusing on the change, not the using – that’s a big part,” he said.

Jason Garcia, left, talks to counselor Tim Allen during an A2A session last week.

Jason Garcia, left, talks to counselor Tim Allen during an A2A session last week.

A2A is peer-run from top to bottom, which means everyone within the organization has had personal experience with either addiction or mental illness.

The man who introduced Candelaria to the program, facilitator Tim Allen, has experienced addiction himself as well as the benefits of exercise to recovery.

“I’ve always thought there was a benefit to my exercising,” said Allen,who is in his 16th year of sobriety. “What made me want to do it is my own personal journey.”

When Allen got sober in 2001, he lived in Corrales with no car and made a daily five-mile bike ride to the nearest bus stop.

“I loved it – I noticed that I felt better,” he said.

Brain benefits

A2A has given him the opportunity to help provide the benefit of exercise to others in recovery.

Allen said addictions hit receptors in the brain, making a person feel good, and working out does the same thing.

“So they’re learning, ‘Hey, I can do something else and feel good as well,'” he said. Participants often take family members and friends to the workout for support.

Jason Torrez stretches as trainer Barry Ore gives instructions during an A2A session

Jason Torrez stretches as trainer Barry Ore gives instructions during an A2A session.

Allen said that if somebody relapses, there is no shaming, unlike other programs that are mandated and work on a model of punishment.

“The whole group encourages them, ‘Please come back,'” he said. “Time and time again we’ve been shown, giving people consequences doesn’t change behaviors.”

Elise Padilla, who developed a partnership with A2A Colorado and brought the program to New Mexico in January, said the program has been “incredible,” as 28 people have completed it already, with only three dropping out.

And at least six have stayed around in mentorship roles – now including Candelaria.

‘The little changes’

“Any of the participants will tell you, it’s the little changes in life that are having the greatest impact,” she said. “They’re seeing that their bodies are getting stronger – having that tangible effect is something they can hold on to.”

Nontraditional methods of working with addicts are greatly needed in Albuquerque, Padilla said. Studies show the medical model for recovery doesn’t address long-term issues and often stigmatizes the addict, she said.

“That stigma and stereotype is one of the biggest barriers we face,” Padilla said.

Padilla is no stranger to the system.

She was involved as an employee with criminal justice, classification and case management in Bernalillo County, along with probation and parole.

“I saw the revolving door of institutionalization,” she said. “All we did was continue to label and stigmatize individuals instead of offering opportunities for growth and change. It was just cyclical.”

That background led her here, running the A2A morning sessions at Duke City Crossfit while Allen runs the evening sessions at Duke City Strength.

“They get to see us as people who have been through it and made it out successfully,” she said.

Word of mouth

The two split the work down the middle.

Both handle their own recruitment, mainly through word of mouth, internal referrals from clients at groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and through organizations like the Salvation Army.

A2A is privately funded through donations, fundraising and partnerships with insurance companies, she said. The funding goes to gym costs, paying facilitators and even for workout clothes, as some participants are homeless.

The program already has had to expand, but Padilla is anticipating another expansion. She is hoping to add another group, partner with another gym and even incorporate juvenile prevention for at-risk youths involved in substance abuse and gang activity.

Now that his six weeks are up, besides becoming an A2A mentor, Candelaria plans to go back to school. And he encourages others who are suffering to try something new.

“It’s a rough road, man, being in addiction,” he said. “Those that need it, don’t be shy, don’t be worried what other people think. Just come on in and experience it for yourself, because you’ll leave happier.”

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