An Act of Will

Her father spoke of an island that had captured his imagination. It was an exotic, faraway place of rainbows and rain forests, waterfalls and blue-green water. He longed to go there and lie upon a soft, sandy beach but could never raise the money.

When she was born, he gave her a name that combined his, Sam, with Sumatra, this place of his dreams. Samatra Phillips, he would say later, was as uncivilized as the island itself. She grew up with a stone heart and clenched fists. It took many years for rainbows to appear in her life.

When she describes her childhood, she begins with the drugs and booze. The daughter of alcoholics, she was 8 or 9 when she started drinking. It wasn't long before she moved on to drugs, and, in time, that became her path, moving from one high to the next.

The path led to prostitution and the corner of La Brea and Washington in L.A., where early one morning eight years ago she sat on a curb sobbing. She was homeless, hopeless, dressed in secondhand clothes and pregnant.

Those who have lived her life recognize this place as Rock Bottom, where one is faced with a simple choice but a difficult decision--to live or die. The junkies and johns, hookers and dealers who knew her saw her crying and asked if she was OK.

No, she replied, she wasn't. And then they walked away.

What saved Phillips was the life inside her, a son whose first home would be Via Avanta, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Pacoima where Phillips sought help.

Each day since her arrival there in 1991 has taken her a step further from her past. In June, she graduated from Cal State Northridge with a degree in business law and a minor in economics. Last week, Phillips, 39, landed a full-time job as an underwriter for a mortgage and loan company.

"Benefits," she says, "for the first time in my life, I have benefits."

Of the six surviving children in her family--a sister was murdered when the family lived in Seattle--all but one eventually fell to alcoholism, drug addiction or both. They and her parents are sober now; Samatra was the last to enter the fold.

They are trying to become what they know a family should be. It's a struggle learning things like love and affection, and incorporating them into family relationships when such things never existed in their past.

"There is still a lot of animosity among some members of the family," says Lillian Phillips, Samatra's mother, who now lives in Tehachapi, Calif. "At this point, I think everyone wants to get to know each other better, but no one has an idea of what a family should be, including me."

It is easier and spontaneous for Samatra with her son, Gyasi (pronounced JAH-see), who turns 8 this month. Gyasi taught her love. His hugs in the morning teach her about commitment and joy. A month ago, he took her by the hand and taught her to in-line skate. She understands she can learn much from this child.

"We're growing up together," she says.

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She loved to run. From the time she was in fifth grade, she found something in running that felt good and right. She was defiant and was forced to attend a continuation high school program.

"Running took me away from things," she says. "That's the only reason I ever graduated."

She ran the 220, 440 and relays, training hard because it seemed urgent to run faster and faster. Looking back, it wasn't so much a matter of running toward anything, she says. Even then, she was running away, escaping.

Her mother worked long hours as director of youth services for the city of Seattle, and she was drinking heavily.

"She was pretty involved with kids in the neighborhood, it seemed like more than she was involved with me," Samatra says.

Her father was rarely around, so the children grew up on their own. At age 13, she moved to Los Angeles, where her mother opened a bookkeeping business. Samatra continued getting in trouble, so her mother, fearing Samatra would become involved with gangs, sent her back to Seattle.

She stayed with an older sister, but they couldn't get along and she was kicked out. A woman who worked as an administrator at the continuation school she attended took her in.

After graduating, Phillips enrolled in community college, where her menu of street drugs expanded and she soon dropped out. When Phillips was 18, another older sister, a stripper and prostitute, was killed--strangled, run over three times, bludgeoned with a brick and left to die on the Seattle waterfront, she says. An arrest was never made.

Phillips did not cry at her sister's funeral. Instead, she vowed to find the killer. She dressed up like her sister and went down to "the Stroll" trawling for the murderer. "All I wanted," she says, "was to find the killer and kill him myself."

At 22, Phillips decided to feed her drug habit by becoming a prostitute. For a time, she was making up to $150 a night, even more in Canada, but eventually she worked for drugs, and as she neared Rock Bottom, she was selling herself for a single hit of crack.

For stabbing a woman during an argument over drugs and clothes, she was convicted of assault with intent to kill and served 15 months in prison. Upon her release, she returned to L.A. in 1989 and enrolled in a trade school but was soon back working the streets.

She had terminated her first two pregnancies, the first one at age 16, then suffered a miscarriage on her third. When she became pregnant a fourth time, she tried to induce a miscarriage by ingesting massive amounts of drugs. If she could miscarry, she figured, the outcome wouldn't be her fault.

But it didn't work. She was three months pregnant when she entered Via Avanta, and throughout her pregnancy, right up until the moment she gave birth, Phillips was certain she would die as punishment from God.

"I thought I was going to die because I tried to kill my baby," she says. "Once he was born and I held him, everything changed. . . . It was my first experience with loving someone."

She says she gave her son her last name because she couldn't remember his father's. He was a drug dealer, part of the past she left behind.

Initially, her goal was to have a healthy baby then return to the streets to resume where she left off. To be among danger and darkness seemed to be her destiny, but destiny changed at Via Avanta.

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Ray Ayala, senior counselor, remembers when Phillips entered treatment. What is most vivid in his memory is her anger.

"She came in with a dogmatic attitude, a lot of pain beneath her anger," he says. "She did a hard program. She had a lot to deal with, but she was very determined."

Anger may have been what kept her alive in the predatory world of the streets, where the weak are easily trampled and the trampled rarely survive; but it was a wall that had to crumble before he could advance with her recovery.

"I knew anger," she says. "I was a fighter. I was comfortable in anger. Anger was my life. I didn't know love. They had to teach me that."

Phillips entered Via Avanta, a program under the auspices of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles, after the first treatment center she tried told her she would not be allowed to keep her baby with her. At Via Avanta, mothers are allowed to keep children up to age 8 with them during treatment.

The one-year program offers parenting skills. There is a domestic abuse component, and clients receive assistance developing job skills and finding employment.

Phillips stayed almost two years before moving into her own apartment. She found a job in telemarketing but was fired, then in 1992 enrolled in Los Angeles Mission College, where she also worked part time as an office assistant and tutor. She became president of her class and the Black Student Union.

In 1996, she enrolled at Northridge. Initially, she was intimidated by the size of the campus, the intensity of classes and the weight of the workload.

"I wasn't sure I could make it there, but I remembered what they taught me at Via," she says, "Walk through your fears."

At the same time, she continued working part time at Mission and raising Gyasi, studying late into the night to keep up with her classes. Most of her money went to paying Gyasi's tuition at a private school, where she volunteered and eventually worked part time as a tutor.

Her graduation was a celebration, a moment of childhood she missed in Seattle. Joy was reflected in bouncing beach balls in a sea of caps and gowns. She walked arm in arm to the stage with three fellow graduates, all African American.

Throughout her recovery and college education, she told herself that she was doing something not only for herself, not only for her son and family, but for an entire culture often deprived of the opportunities she sought.

"I really feel society would prefer that I be an addict," she says. "The reason I believe that is because so many of my people are. I don't think it was meant for me to be successful. That's one of the reasons I'm fighting so hard. They need more examples like me in my culture--not just in my culture, people, period."

She has continued volunteering at Via Avanta, organizing graduates, talking to residents, taking them to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and sponsoring them as they leave the program.

"She's my role model," says Omega Rawley, who has been at the center for 8 1/2 months. "I see what she has done, and it gives me hope that I can make it too."

Phillips' hope is to eventually return to school for an MBA. She would like to be a stockbroker, write a book about her life. Her main goal, however, is to be the parent she knows she can be, to give back to her son what he has given her, to give back to Via Avanta and to be a rainbow to chase in darkness.

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Duane Noriyuki can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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