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Jim Kenyon: Dismas House Aids in Road to Recovery

  • 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. Geoff Hansen

Published: 7/26/2017 12:10:49 AM
Modified: 7/26/2017 12:10:56 AM

Tommy Shea popped his first OxyContin at 16. A friend who was seriously injured in a car crash had a prescription for the powerful painkiller and offered a pill to Shea.

“I tried it and really didn’t like it,” Shea said. “It just made me sleepy.”

Two years later, Shea was given another sample. “I tried it again, and loved it,” he told me, attributing the change to taking a lower dosage.

The bouts with anxiety that had tormented Shea during his teen years melted away. “It helped me feel more normal around other people,” he said. “I could deal with things easier.”

In the beginning, one $40 pill got him through the day. Then it took two pills. Next came heroin.

“I was young and stupid,” said Shea, who generously allowed me to share his story after we talked on Monday at Dismas House in Hartford Village.

Shea, 28, has lived at Dismas, which provides affordable, quality housing in a group setting to people just released from prison, for nearly two months.

He was arrested in March 2016 during a Vermont State Police raid in Bethel and charged with possession of heroin with intent to sell. After serving seven months at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., and additional time at a prison work camp, he landed at Dismas.

It’s been a rocky road.

Shea was born in Lowell, Mass., to a mother who was a heroin addict and a father he has never met. When he was 7, he moved with his mother and three sisters to Windsor, where his grandmother lived.

His mother floated in and out of her children’s lives, but in the end, “she couldn’t handle it,” Shea told me. At 13, he was placed in a foster home. For the next five years, he bounced between foster homes in Randolph, Norwich, Hanover and Hartford. “Most of the families were nice,” he said.

Shea’s fondest memories were at Richmond Middle School and Hanover High, where he played three sports, including football, as a freshman and sophomore.

“I thought of Hanover as being a ritzy town, where I was going to get picked on because I didn’t have nice clothes,” he said. “But kids were really nice. They were down to earth and asked me to hang out after school.”

But Shea’s mental health problems seemed to worsen in his late teens. By 18, he had dropped out of Hartford High and lived out of a tent and on friends’ couches.

He turned it around for a while. Long enough to enter drug rehab, earn his high school diploma and enroll at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

Two days after Shea turned 22, his mother died from a drug overdose. He was halfway to an associate’s degree at VTC when he suffered a relapse. Later, his younger sister was killed in a motorcycle crash.

To support his drug habit, Shea got into stealing and dealing.

During our conversation, Shea didn’t offer excuses. He acknowledged that plenty of other people face adversity and don’t do the things he’s done. “A lot of it has been my own fault,” he told me.

As strange as it sounds, Shea is one of the luckier casualties of the opioid epidemic.

Dismas House is quite particular. Candidates are interviewed while still in prison before being accepted into the house. It doesn’t take sex offenders.

The Rev. Jack Dickey, a Vanderbilt University chaplain, founded the first Dismas House in Nashville, Tenn., in 1974. After meeting Hickey in the early 1980s, Rita and Frank McCaffrey, of Rutland, brought the Dismas concept to Vermont.

As I’ve written before, the McCaffreys were light years ahead of their time in Vermont’s criminal justice reform movement. (Frank McCaffrey, a longtime state criminal court judge, gives his wife most of the credit.)

After starting out in Rutland, Dismas of Vermont now has four houses in the state, including Hartford, which opened in 2014. The nonprofit organization spent $450,000 turning the late-1800s house into a home for 10 recently released inmates. Currently, it has six more offenders on a waiting list.

While Vermont taxpayers spend roughly $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. Shea and other residents, who typically stay four to eight months, pay $80 a week in room and board.

On Monday, the McCaffreys, who have both hit 80, drove from their home in Weston, Vt., for Hartford Dismas’ annual barbecue for volunteers and neighbors.

That’s where I met Shea, whom I’d heard about from a former Dismas resident. He has a slight build and speaks softly.

“If you had seen him strung out on drugs, living under bridges, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Renee DePalo, director of Hartford Dismas House. “It’s amazing that he survived. I don’t know if he sees it that way, but we’re constantly reminded here about how far he’s come.”

Shea works at a downtown White River Junction eatery, where his shift starts at 6 a.m. Like other Dismas residents, he gets around mostly by bicycle and Advance Transit.

Shea is still in recovery. He’s in a treatment program that prescribes him Suboxone, a drug that helps curb an addict’s cravings and is safer than methadone, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

He’s starting to think about returning to college. The federal government, however, makes it tough on felony drug offenders to receive financial aid. Their “eligibility may be limited” is how the U.S. Department of Education’s website puts it.

“So I’ll have to chip away at it,” Shea said.

Give credit to both Shea and Dismas House for giving him a chance at succeeding.

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




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