Program Leads Troubled Teens Down Clean and Sober Path

Times Staff Writer

Ellen Kelley walked into Pathfinders five years ago. She had crashed into another car and catapulted through the windshield of her car, stone-cold drunk at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. She was charged with driving under the influence. It wasn’t the first time.

The driver of the other car suffered only broken ribs. Luckily, no one was killed. Even so, a kind of death set in. Kelley, boozing mother and cocaine dealer, gave way to a new woman--one who was clean and sober and has remained so since.

Kelley, 34, is now a counselor in the 2-year-old adolescent service center of Pathfinders of San Diego, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program founded in the ‘50s. Pathfinders offers a trio of outlets, each catering to specialized needs: an inpatient recovery home for adults on Cedar Street downtown; an outpatient service center for adults in North Park and, not far away on El Cajon Boulevard, the outpatient center for adolescents, ages 13 to 19.

Teachers Are ‘Social Models’


Even the terms inpatient and outpatient imply a misnomer in the case of Pathfinders. Counselors such as Kelley pride themselves on being what they call a “social model” program--in her words, “people helping people.” Almost everyone connected with Pathfinders is a former user, now in recovery.

“Degrees just don’t mean that much,” Kelley said. “At least, not in our work. Not to a kid who needs help. Our education was in the streets.”

As with many programs helping drug-addicted teens, Pathfinders faces a vexing irony: It gets high marks from experts all over the county--at a time when teen-age drug abuse has never been worse--but has no certainty in funding.

The $116,000 it receives from the county constitutes 48% of the annual budget--48% guaranteed only until the end of the year. Program director Joan Johnson said no promise of renewal exists, which could put an even bigger burden on private contributions.


As many as 50 teens go to Pathfinders regularly, taking part in the 12-Step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Despite the success of such programs, Kelley concedes a difference in tracing the steps with teens, as opposed to adults.

When adults enter a 12-Step program, they’ve generally “bottomed out"--they’ve totaled the car, have drunk-driving citations and are penniless, not to mention having alienated loved ones. Children in need of drug rehabilitation are often at war with parents, Kelley said, and don’t yet know they’ve bottomed out. That makes her job even tougher.

Johnson is a Coronado mother and a rarity in the field--she is not a user or an alcoholic, past or present, and is listed in no recovery program. She’s concerned about teen-age drug addiction--she’s running for the school board in Coronado--and speaks highly, almost reverently, of chief counselors Kelley and John Karp.

Window on the World


Kelley concedes that she sees “all kinds.” Pathfinders is, for her, a window on the world of contemporary America.

“This guy called the other day,” she said with a rueful laugh. “Let’s say his name was George. George has a 14-year-old daughter, a nice-sized girl. But then, he’s a nice-sized man. Turns out this is a girl who beats up on her parents--regularly. I saw her slug him. She did it right in front of me. She’s an adopted child who was just recently told she’s adopted. She was drinking a lot and doing a lot of crystal (methamphetamine).”

“A lot of the kids we see are last-ditch kids,” director Johnson said. “The parents are fed up. They call us up and say, ‘Please do something with this kid. I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t take it anymore.’ ”

Kelley said a lot of kids who come to Pathfinders are influenced by peers, by the pressures of an “MTV culture.” But a lot learn the habits of a user from Mom or Dad, who don’t think that drinking or even alcoholism is comparable to drug addiction.


Take Alan, for instance. Alan, 17, who asked that his last name not be published, has been clean and sober for seven months. He started drinking by stealing liquor from his parents’ cabinet. Liquor, he said, led to crystal, marijuana, cocaine and LSD.

Tammy, 16, has been clean and sober for 73 days. She recently returned to school after what she called a drug-induced miscarriage. A classmate approached, wanting to buy LSD, which she used to sell.

“I suddenly had cravings,” she said, “but told him no, I was clean now. He accepted it. It felt good to say it.”

After recovery, counselor Kelley watched her own daughter, 16-year-old Tamie Benson, go through her own chemical dependency nightmare. Tamie and her mom now share the Pathfinders experience.


“As mom sobered up, I had to deal with a different mom,” said Tamie, a junior at Hoover High School, where she recently started her own recovery group. “Suddenly, mom was a real mom--she was giving me limits. I couldn’t handle it. For the first time in our lives, the roles were mother and daughter.

“I soon got into the drug scene, mainly crystal. There were times when I’d be up for weeks, high as a kite. I realize now, when you’re using, you just never face problems. Everyday concerns become insurmountable. When you come off the high, the problems are still there and suddenly seem worse.

“Communication with other people is also affected. Drugs warp everything. Mainly, users just have a negative attitude toward life. It’s nice to wake up in the morning--clean and sober--and feel good about things. I hope this program can continue to make it, so that other kids can have that feeling.”