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Jim Kenyon: Running in the Right Direction

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, October 08, 2017

Jamie MacDonald knows what it’s like to put in a day of back-breaking work. Even before graduating from Woodstock Union High School in 2004, he was an experienced farmhand — milking cows, cleaning pigpens, baling hay and spreading manure.

But seldom, particularly in his early 20s, was he too tired at the end of the day to pop open a cold one. “I’d get antsy around 5 o’clock,” he told me. “I’d stop at the store in Bridgewater and pick up a six-pack.”

Budweiser was MacDonald’s beverage of choice. By the time he hit rock bottom, “I was pushin’ a 12 pack a night,” he said.

Multiple convictions in Vermont for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license resulted in several prison stints of six months or less.

It’s an all-too-common story.

Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., 65 percent meet the medical criteria for drug or alcohol addiction, according to a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money, or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent,” The Washington Post wrote in 2014.

Since being released from prison this spring, MacDonald, who turns 32 in a couple of weeks, has been working to get his life together. He moved into Hartford Dismas House, which provides affordable, quality housing in a group setting to offenders returning to the outside world. He found a job — a requirement of living at Dismas — at a convenience store in Hartford Village and attends Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

Last week, I sat down with MacDonald on Dismas’ front porch, where we talked for a while about his upbringing. “I’m not saying that I didn’t have a good start, but it wasn’t always the easiest,” he said.

MacDonald’s biological parents battled substance abuse and he was eventually placed in the state’s custody. As a kid, he bounced from foster home to foster home.

That’s how he met John MacDonald, whose family has a small farm in West Woodstock. He was about 10 when John MacDonald, who is single, took him in.

“We just clicked,” John told me over the phone. “He didn’t have anyone in his life that he could count on.”

They went through a lengthy adoption process, and came to share a last name. When I asked Jamie MacDonald about their relationship, he said, “My father tried his hardest. He did everything he could for me.”

But Jamie’s drinking eventually took its toll. “He’s very capable and he’s a really good worker,” his father said. “He’s got a good heart, too. ... He just needs to stay sober.”

To his credit, John MacDonald has stuck with his son through the tough times. He made a point of visiting him at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield to know that he hadn’t been forgotten. When his son completed his sentence, he picked him up at the prison gates.

They share dinner from time to time and Jamie stops by the farm. He even daydreams a bit about returning to farming.

But he’s not there yet.

“I want to get my life straightened out,” he said.

MacDonald’s move into Hartford Dismas, which opened in 2014, is a sign that he’s headed in the right direction.

Hartford Dismas is among four residences operated in the state by Dismas of Vermont, a nonprofit organization that’s been providing recently released offenders with much-needed transitional housing since the 1980s. That housing is in short supply, largely because of the not-in-my-backyard-attitude that dominates many communities. Dismas doesn’t take sex offenders, which no doubt makes it more palatable to some.

As I’ve written before, Dismas of Vermont is one of the best deals going for the state’s criminal justice system.

While Vermont taxpayers spend about $60,000 a year to keep an offender behind bars, Dismas costs about one-third of that. Private donations and a state grant cover the bulk of the costs. MacDonald and the nine other Hartford Dismas residents, who typically stay four to eight months, pay $80 a week in room and board.

This year, Hartford Dismas has added an unusual amenity — residents receive memberships to the Upper Valley Aquatic Center. It’s costing Dismas about $1,000 — no small amount for a nonprofit on a shoestring budget — but strikes me as a good investment.

Dismas is teaching former inmates that regular exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle — a foreign concept to the U.S. prison system. People behind bars “spend a lot of time laying around,” said Jeff Backus, who was a corrections officer for nine years before joining Hartford Dismas as assistant house director in March. “Their diets are mostly high-calorie, high-sugar.”

MacDonald, who is 5-foot-11 and weighs 180 pounds, found most inmates who used the gym in prison were weight lifters. “They were into looking big instead of being fit.”

Along with hitting the treadmill at the Aquatic Center, MaDonald is running and in-line skating. “It helps with stress and makes me feel good about myself.”

With encouragement from Backus, MacDonald signed up to run his first 5K race — a Hartford Dismas fundraiser — later this month. (The Gory Daze 5K starts at Dothan Brook School in Wilder at 11 a.m. on Oct. 28. Participants can register at the event or before at https://runsignup.com/GoryDaze5K. The entry fee is $20.)

While other Dismas residents are volunteering at the event, which will include food, music and face painting, only MacDonald is gearing up to run the 3.1 miles.

For MacDonald, who was once arrested for attempting to evade police in a motor vehicle, life on the run is taking on a whole new meaning.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.