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Prodigal Daughters Seek Holiday Serenity

Ask for directions and you’re told it’s next door to a vacant lot. There is no sign to announce Via Avanta, this small compound of low buildings protected by a chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire. Get buzzed inside and you’ll notice that the swing set and jungle gym are rimmed with yellow caution tape, having been declared unsafe for the 15 children, ages 4 and under, who live here with their mothers.

Via Avanta is a residential drug rehab program in Pacoima operated by the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Centers, a nonprofit agency. First impressions may make it seem more depressing than it is. Inside an airy room where counselor Denise Jones was leading a session, the women seemed grateful to be there and pleased to have a visitor. Eighteen of the program’s 40 clients had gathered in a semi-circle on sofas and chairs, working to repair their damaged lives. All have had problems with the law. Some had been declared unfit mothers.

The topic was co-dependency in general and Thanksgiving in particular. Jones, herself “clean and sober for seven years,” prodded the women for holiday memories.

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Shari remembered one Thanksgiving in particular. “I was about 7, and my brother was 9. This was when my mom was drinking.” Mom left the turkey in the oven too long, but blamed the kids. “She came in yelling at us. She started pulling my hair. She grabbed my hair and started throwing me around. My brother had to pull her off me . . .” She talked through her tears. “Whenever I think of Thanksgiving, I think of me and my brother burning that turkey.” Another woman hugged her, muffling quiet sobs.

Bernice talked about more recent holidays. “All through the year, everybody’s fighting. Nobody likes each other in our family. I’ve never seen my family be happy more than five or ten minutes . . . It’s fake. We go in, try to smile . . . It’s ruined from the beginning because it’s so fake.”

She, too, became tearful. At Christmas, her daughter received a present marked only from grandpa, not from grandma and grandpa. “She does that. She picks favorites. She says all the bad kids are my dad’s . . I don’t believe I’m bad. I believe I’m sick.”

Pam laughed remembering one Christmas. She was 5 years old and had awakened her father. “I said, ‘Good morning. Merry Christmas!’ And he said, ‘F--- you!’ ”

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Betty was just 5, too, when she had a terrible Christmas. Eager to open presents, she awakened early and walked in on her mother and her boyfriend. “I was beat bad and locked in the bathroom because I saw them having sex.” She figures she now understands her mother better. “My mom had a disease. I accept that.”

Another Pam recalled a Christmas when she and her boyfriend “went out and got high. And we were high for the next week . . . He just turned into the man from hell around the holidays and he just beat the crap out of me. Especially around the holidays, maybe because his parents are dead. I don’t know.”

Linda proudly remembered that, despite her addiction, she never failed to get Christmas gifts for her seven kids. “I was responsible. But when I think about it, it was hard being responsible and drunk and loaded at the same time.”

Faith remembered last Thanksgiving. “I was in jail. For Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had to wait in line for the phone three hours to talk to my mom and dad and another two hours to talk to my kids in foster care.”

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Shannon, a mother of 11, couldn’t help but laugh remembering what she did last Thanksgiving.

“I took the turkey and sold it. Oh, I messed up everybody’s Thanksgiving.”

She traded it, she explained, for a $20 rock of cocaine.

“Oh man,” another woman said, laughing, “you did good, didn’t you?”

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For most of these women, this will be the first Thanksgiving free of drugs and alcohol in years--and for that they all seem thankful. The Via Avanta program lasts between nine and 18 months. “Some of them will stay clean. Some of them will not,” Jones said.

Today, they’ll be having Thanksgiving among themselves. “There’s a real unity here around the holidays, not the usual bitching and fighting,” one of the Pams said. “Everybody cooks and helps so the holidays are pretty cool.”

Pam said the holidays make her think of the Serenity Prayer. The counselor suggested it would be a good way to end the session, so the semi-circle became a circle, all joining hands. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” they prayed. “Amen.”

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Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: YQTU59A@prodigy.com).


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