TAMPA — Middle school was the first time someone offered him "weed," and the pressure grew constant.
By 14, he gave in. There were problems in his family, and he wondered if anyone cared about him. Marijuana, he figured, could ease the pain.
Not too long afterward, the Town 'N Country teen was caught with it on school grounds.
A judge ordered him to get help at Phoenix House, a national nonprofit substance abuse service organization. Gradually his life changed.
That was one local teen's story, but plenty of others have similar testimonies.
High-profile former patients like Darryl Strawberry have solidified Phoenix House as a place for adults to recover. But now the organization is helping teens get clean at the Phoenix House Derek Jeter Center on W Waters Avenue. The program, which serves young people countywide, aims to give those who have used drugs and alcohol an alternative path for the future.
Clients include teens caught experimenting with marijuana and those charged with misdemeanors for drug possession.
"We've got valedictorians and gang members," said Jack Feinberg, clinical director for Phoenix House's Florida region.
Teens 13 to 18 are referred to Phoenix House in a variety of ways, from judges to nonprofits and even some parents who are looking for answers. They undergo intensive outpatient counseling with a clinical therapist to get to the root of why they chose drugs or drinking.
In the past, teens who were released from the counseling program often fell back into their old ways.
"They have a chronic condition, and a brief intervention is not going to cure it," Feinberg said.
Some tried Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but they often didn't feel welcome because of their age.
"Not only did the kids feel out of place, but the people there felt like the kids hadn't earned their seats," Feinberg said. "Parents were also uncomfortable leaving their children in that atmosphere."
We started thinking, "How can kids get help after treatment?" Feinberg said.
The staff turned that void into various avenues of treatment, including supportive relationships, career counseling, education and healthy lifestyle choices.
Now, each weeknight the recovery program offers a different group activity. A personal trainer recently came to work out with the group. There's also a music night where teens might experiment with making hip-hop beats, and an art night, along with outings to the movie theater and zoo.
Sometimes the teens sit in a circle and talk about the difficulties they faced that week. The meetings are free and voluntary, and people can attend as long as they want.
"This gives us contact with them so if there's a recovery problem we can get them back in the counseling program," Feinberg said.
• • •
Nationwide, Phoenix House helps about 7,570 adults and teenagers every day with in-patient and outpatient services. It is funded with federal, state and local tax dollars.
The organization began in the 1960s when a former Navy psychologist formed a halfway house in New York City for Vietnam veterans addicted to heroin.
The concept was "the community as a healer," Feinberg said. "Someone's environment can heal or hurt them."
The yearly budget of the local teen recovery management program is $187,000 and is funded through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Since starting last May, it has attracted about 65 clients. Each is paired up with a recovery coach. They talk about resisting drugs but also the teens' personal interests.
"The best way to reach them is to find what they're passionate about," Alfredo Ortiz, a recovery coach, said recently at the facility.
Marco Watson, another recovery coach, chimed in: "It's like if you're willing to take the time to nurture that interest, then it alleviates the idle time."
Ortiz and Watson have helped teens find jobs and enroll in school.
They are the only full-time recovery coaches working with teens at Phoenix House.
On the surface, their program looks a lot like a neighborhood recreation center setup. But the one-on-one contact separates it from that, they say.
It's not uncommon for teens to call them in the middle of the night, asking for help with a situation or simply for an encouraging word.
Teens abusing prescription pills are among their biggest challenges. The sluggish economy has contributed to some of the teens' substance abuse problems, Watson said.
"We've had clients that come in and are stressed because they have to get a job to help pay bills in the house," he said.
The coaches try to help find solutions to the kids' problems. Watson reflected about a client who called recently to say he was about to graduate from barber school. Watson was proud. He had helped him fill out the paperwork needed to enter the school.
"Sometimes if you feel hopeless about a situation, you can easily relapse," Ortiz said. "We try to get them to focus on their goals and let them know they're attainable."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.