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Program offering help, hope to women

November 25, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - One day at a time, with determination and support from a local rehabilitation center, Stacia Conway and Glendora Lewis have conquered their substance abuse problems and begun building a better future for themselves and their children, they said.

The two women graduated this summer from the Washington County Health Department's CAMEO House in Hagerstown. CAMEO House is a long-term transitional housing facility that offers a variety of treatment services for alcohol- and drug-addicted mothers of children under 13.

CAMEO stands for Children and Mothers Experiencing Opportunities.

Baltimore natives Conway and Lewis spent about one year in the program after shorter-term rehabilitation efforts and methadone clinics failed to help them kick the drug habits that were destroying their lives, they said.

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Conway, 33, continued to use heroin even after she learned she was pregnant, she said.

"At the time, I just wasn't ready to stop. I was just getting an oil change before I got dirtied up again," she said.

Lewis started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at age 10, had graduated to crack cocaine by 20 and started using heroin a few years later, she said. She never had a job, drove a car or graduated from high school.

"I was living in the projects, using my money to buy drugs, watching life pass me by," said Lewis, 34. "I was tired of being tired. I got tired of living that way."

Conway also "got tired of using and doing the things drugs make you do," she said. "I wanted a better life for me and my daughter. It's never too late to change."

In spring 2001, Lewis and Conway sought long-term rehabilitation to deal with their addictions once and for all, they said. Referred to the CAMEO House, they stuck with the intensive rehab program and have been drug-free for 17 and 16 months, respectively, they said.

"It's not easy to get through and you have to want it to make it, but I would recommend this program to any woman with children who needs help," Lewis said. "Being here really helped me want to change my life."

She and Conway now work full-time and rent apartments for themselves and their children.

"I feel so strong. You don't know how proud I am of myself, how much I respect myself now," said Conway, who was promoted to a supervisory position at her Valley Mall job within six months.

"I really feel good because today I think I'm making all the right choices. I'm responsible today. I'm a real mother today," she said.

Lewis expects to earn her high school diploma in December. She is learning how to drive and was voted Employee of the Year for her job at a local fast food restaurant.

"I'm dependable now. I never miss work and I'm always on time," Lewis said. "I don't care if I don't have a penny left over for anything else, I pay my bills."

Conway and Lewis are among five women who have graduated from CAMEO since the program was launched in June 2001, program director Melissa Crawford said.

CAMEO House - the only such facility in the Tri-State area - serves eligible women from throughout the state. CAMEO opened in June 2001 after Health Department Addictions Director Becky Hogamier secured a $212,000 federal grant to fund the program. That grant was subsequently renewed and increased, Crawford said.

CAMEO participants - which now total six mothers and eight children - are asked to commit themselves to the highly structured program for up to one year, Crawford said.

The women and up to three of their children live in private dormitory rooms and share kitchen and living areas. Conway and Lewis each lived at CAMEO House with one young child.

Part of the health department's Division of Addictions and Mental Health Services, the program is staffed by certified addictions counselors, social workers, nurses, physicians, psychiatrists and support personnel, Crawford said.

"The staff here are wonderful. There was always someone I could talk to," said Conway, who became known as the "peacemaker" at CAMEO for her ability to mediate the conflicts that tend to arise when people with different personalities share close quarters for long periods of time.

Despite those personality differences, Conway and Lewis said, they forged strong bonds with CAMEO House workers and residents.

The women share daily housekeeping duties, receive addictions treatment five days a week, attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, receive mental health assessments and referrals and participate in individual and group therapy sessions led by certified counselors, Crawford said.

"I didn't always agree with everything they said, but deep down in my heart I knew they were right," Lewis said.

CAMEO clients learn parenting skills and how to manage their emotions and their money. They get job training, educational assistance and help finding their own homes after they graduate from the program, Crawford said.

"We provide a safe place for them to cope and process daily problems in life that in the past would have caused them to use (drugs or alcohol)," Crawford said. "We build a foundation here for them and give them the tools they need. The women can choose to use those tools for their continuing recovery."

Lewis credits CAMEO counselors with giving her the skills she needed to get in touch with her emotions and help manage her once uncontrollable anger. She recently responded to a rude customer by turning her back for a moment to say the Serenity Prayer, she said.

"I've got feelings today. I care about people today. I care how I talk to people today," Lewis said. "It feels good to be able to talk to my children without fussing and all that stuff."

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