Last week the eighth-grade students at Park View Middle School listened to a sobering presentation as three former inmates from the RI Department of Corrections, along with Christopher Frenier, a probation and parole officer, shared stories of how a series of bad choices at a young age surrounding drugs and alcohol affected them for a lifetime. On hand were Park View’s support staff of social workers and school psychologists.
Project FACT is supported by the RI Dept. of Corrections and Frenier is grateful for the opportunity to bring his panel of former inmate speakers, Jennifer Viau, Luis Estrada and Alex “Bam” Snow, to schools at the middle and high school level in order to try to educate students as to the importance of making smart decisions early on. FACT stands for Fostering Alternative Choices and Thinking, and the program began in 2013. Snow also works with his own foundation, the Instinctive Choices Foundation.
“My brother died from a heroin overdose at 37, and he struggled for a long time with drug use and criminal behavior,” Frenier said. “I started this program because I wanted to look at where he went wrong and try to make sense of it and try to make something positive come out of it. His bad choices led to drug use at a young age, in middle school, and he saw a whole path from juvenile delinquency to an overdose in 2013. I wanted his name to live on for something positive. If we can help even one student change their path each time, that’s what matters.”
“That’s one child that someone won’t have to bury,” she said.
Frenier noted that his three panelists are considered success stories, that rarely are people alive and out of prison to tell their stories and to help others not follow that same path.
“We want kids to be informed about the fact that their choices could negatively affect their entire lives if they’re not careful,” he said. “We want to empower them with information to help them make the right decisions.”
Frenier’s brother entered rehab for drugs for the first time as a junior in high school and died alone of an overdose in a hotel room approximately 20 years later. That information was not easy to swallow, as the students sat and listened to the three panelists’ stories.
“Two or three bad decisions can screw up your life, and that’s why we’re here today,” said Frenier after describing the call that came to his parents’ house that his brother had died, and his difficult task of having to go and identify the body.
Estrada spoke to the students about his time in prison in segregation, having returned from the military and arrested for criminal conduct, sentenced to 75 years in prison. “I had a wife, a child, a business and a home,” he said. “Everything was gone. It took three and a half years in prison before I woke up and thought ‘Why am I here?’”
Estrada shared that he took his first drink at 12 years and smoked his first joint soon after. “Prison is another type of school you don’t want to be in,” he said. “It took me three and a half years to figure out that 90 percent of my problems were because of drugs. In my ninth month in segregation, I figured out that drinking, smoking, pills, and cocaine had been my progression and I needed to stop.”
In prison, he became more educated and has four college degrees, manages a law firm, helps to run political campaigns and has a wife and child. “It took me until I was 44 years old to start my life,” he said. “The choices you make today affect you tomorrow.” Viau was already homeless at the age of the students in the audience because of her choices, and she told them so. She asked them to raise their hands if they hoped to grow up to be a drug addict or homeless. Not one hand went up.
“My story started with sexual abuse from a trusted family member, I was molested by my father at a young age,” she said. “I can’t say it enough that it’s not your fault if this happens to you. I stepped further into me. I had my first drink of alcohol at age nine, and with that first beer something changed inside of me and I made more bad choices until I couldn’t make any more choices because drinking and drugs are mind altering. I learned how to steal at a young age so that I could get what I needed. I didn’t feel good about myself.” Viau encouraged the students over and over throughout her presentation to communicate with people about what is going on in their lives, and if one person doesn’t listen or help them to move on to another person until they get the help they need.
“If I could change one thing about my life, I would change that,” she said.
She left school in the 9th grade due to her drug use and didn’t listen to those who tried to help her.
“I am 54 years old today and I have to take direction, which is something I didn’t want to do,” she said. “I chose not to listen to my teachers, my parents, my brothers, and sisters.”
Viau battled homelessness, drug addiction, poverty and the life that went along with it, using cocaine and heroin, getting thrown out of her house at 13 and living on the streets.
“One pill, one drink, one joint, these behaviors are choices, and they make a difference now,” she said as she described her life, getting emotional in the retelling. “I ate out of garbage cans, I slept in doorways, I slept with people for money, that’s where my drug addiction took me. Drug addiction has one job and it’s to kill you. I was in and out of prison. I needed help, I didn’t feel good about myself and I never knew I had a choice. I never knew that stealing one candy bar at 30 or having one can of beer could lead to 20 years of homelessness, and a 30-year sentence.”
Viau is a professional chef now and loves what she does, but emphasized that there are many jobs she’d love but can’t have them because of her choices.
“I have no high school education as a consequence of my choices, my actions, the drugs,” she said. “In a BCI check it comes up that I have committed crimes, so even though I once wanted to be a police officer, I can’t. There are places I can’t go into, even now. There’s nothing cool about it, there’s nothing glorified about it.”
Viau also emphasized that addiction does not discriminate.
“It doesn’t matter your color, your age, or how old you are,” she said. “If you’ve already experimented with drugs, you don’t have to do it again. If something happened to you and you are struggling, tell someone. If you look around the room, some of you will die of an overdose. You want to hope that’s not true but if you keep experimenting, it only takes one time. Today’s choices dictate tomorrow’s future. My past will follow me wherever I go because of the choices I made as a child and as a young adult.”
She also explained to the students that the drugs today are different than the drugs when she was a teenager.
“If you use drugs, you will die. That’s a promise,” she said. “If I had used the drugs of today, I would have been dead. I guarantee.”
Snow, a former PVMS student himself was a foreboding figure at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, and came on even stronger than the previous two speakers. He demanded the students’ respect and attention.
“No slouching, no falling asleep,” he said. “We’re asking for two hours of your time, most of us spent more time in prison than you've been alive, so don’t you dare disrespect us. What we bring to you today, you can’t get anywhere else.”
He told the students that he grew up in Cranston, went to Edgewood Highland and Park View Middle School.
“This is where I started my journey and where I started to become undone,” he said. “My teachers used to say this is where you’re cultivating friends for college or friends for prison.”
He asked the students how many kids loved their mothers and how many wanted to be successful and go to college, and then asked them how many had ever done something they knew they shouldn’t have done such as vaping, smoking weed, drinking or taking pills, or knew someone who had. Many hands were raised. He told the students that for all those who said they loved their mothers if they’re lying dead on the floor or going to jail they’re not bringing loving their parents into that equation.
“When they ring your mother’s doorbell her life as she knew it is over. When she goes to identify your body, thinking that you definitely would’ve made better choices than that, that’s not loving your mother,” he said. “It’s never your kid until it is and you love somebody you make better decisions than this. If you love your parents you will preserve your safety, your freedom and all of the things your parents have worked so hard for you to have.” Snow told the students how the most difficult day of his time in prison was when he found out that his mother had died due to an illness. His careless attitude at her last visit, made him feel ashamed and having to attend her wake in shackles and handcuffs upset him more than anything else.
“When your mother carried you for nine months and she held you up the day you were born, do you think she said, ‘I can’t wait to see you grow up and become a junkie, a murderer or to throw your life away?’ My nightmares are not about my 17 years in jail, they're about breaking my mother's heart.
He reminded the students about the true meaning of strength.
“Strength isn’t measured by how strong you are, it’s measured by what you're able to resist,” Snow said.
“When my mother visited me for the last time I came swaggering into the visitor’s room, and she said to me, ‘Where the hell do you think you are? The ESPN awards? A movie premiere? This is the worst place in the state and you’re the most popular person in hell. You don’t love me, you love yourself. You might care about me, but you love yourself. Every choice you’ve ever made is based on what you wanted and not about me,’” he said.
Two weeks later his mother was dead.
“I landed in that place because of the choices I made,” he said. “Our choices should be made based on how we feel for our mothers. She never made the bad choices, I did. At her wake I couldn’t touch her hand, I couldn’t kiss her goodbye. No one teaches you that in the tough guy classes. That was my worst day in prison. That was when the light bulb came on for me. It took that.”
Snow told the students that they could no longer use the excuse that they didn’t know any better.
“What we’ve done today is robbed you all of the excuse of ‘I didn’t know.’ The most important time to respect someone is when they're not around. It’s easy to respect someone when they’re right in your face.”
He offered the students advice.
“If your friend passes you a pill, ask to see their pharmacy license,” he said. “Don’t do drugs, the high isn’t worth it. My advice to you is forged from a wake of victims.”
For more information about Project FACT contact Frenier at Christopher.Frenier.