Painting a different picture of battling addiction

There are many sides to battling addiction, as Angie Keaty and Haley Pendergraft know all too well.

There’s the endless fight against chemical dependency, a highly personal feat of determination that is often accompanied by the strength of friends, family and community.

And after that battle comes the challenge of fighting the stigma of drug addiction in society.

Working against drug addiction stigma is what brought Pendergraft, the owner of Local Pros Painting in Maple Valley, to work with Keaty, the co-founder of the local nonprofit drug addiction support group Battlefield Addiction, in teaching some recovering addicts a new trade, in the hopes that these new found skills will show other potential employers their value in the workforce.

“I have had some experience with some of my employees who have come through to the other side — not as a result of anything I have done, just in their own lives — and they’re some of the best guys I know, the hardest working guys I know,” Pendergraft said, sitting in Keaty’s yard around a meal she shared with volunteers from Big Change Recovery Homes, a sober home for recovering addicts after they go through treatment. “They live productive, good lives now. I think there’s a huge value in these guys. They hit a rough patch and are trying to get their way through the hardship, and once they hit the other side, they’re amazing people. I find they’re some of the best employees I’ve ever had.”

Pendergraft originally contacted Keaty last spring to learn more about Battlefield Addiction and to ask if Keaty knew of any recovering addicts that would want to learn the painting trade. Her goal was to start doing yearly community service projects while giving recovering addicts a leg up.

As it turned out, Keaty’s house needed a fresh coat of paint, and after learning more about Battlefield Addiction, Pendergraft wanted to have her first ever community service project give back to Keaty.

Keaty offered to pay, but Pendergraft wouldn’t hear of it.

“I had to convince her to let me do this,” she said, adding that the paint she used was donated by Rodda Paint Co. in Lacey. “It’s a great way to give back to Angie, because she pours her whole life into this program, and has done so much for so many people. It’s nice to help her out so she doesn’t have to think about this and keep saving lives, and to get to know these guys and maybe one day, when they’re ready and doing well, they can come my way.”

In total, twelve volunteers from Big Change Recovery came to learn how to paint with Pendergraft’s professional painters last week. Several of the volunteer’s families are a part of Battlefield Addiction with Keaty and wanted to give back specifically to the program, while others said they were just glad to get out and work and think about helping someone else, rather than themselves.

Three volunteers — Maxwell Vaders, 29, Brandon Masel, 22, and Tanner Wahl, 26 — were sitting around the table when the interview turned toward the topic of stigma against recovering addicts, especially when it came to applying for a job.

Vaders has found it difficult to apply for jobs since he has to check the box that says he’s been convicted of a non-violent drug felony.

“Someone else with a better looking application will probably get chosen over me,” he said.

According to a 2015 Ella Baker Center for Human Rights report on incarceration, 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people “remain unemployed even one year after release.”

Additionally, according to a survey performed by the center, 76 percent of responses rated “their experience of finding work as very difficult or nearly impossible. Excluding respondents who were retired or not working because of disabilities, 26 percent remained unemployed five years after release, and just 40 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals were working full time after five years. If part-time and temporary work is included, 67 percent of respondents remained either unemployed or underemployed after five years.”

A Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times/CBS News poll found men with criminal records account for roughly a third of the nonworking men between the ages of 25-54, considered the prime working age. More than 1,000 people were polled for the survey.

This statistic was reported in the New York Times, but not on the Kaiser Family Foundation webpage about the poll.

Even recovering addicts that don’t have a criminal record can find a hard time getting employment, Wahl said.

“I had a huge gap in my employment history, and they were wondering why it was,” Wahl said, recalling the time he interviewed with L.A. Fitness. “I was honest with them. ‘I’m an addict. It doesn’t define who I am today.’”

It turned out well for Wahl — they hired him on as a sales rep, despite the fact he had no sales experience.

But even though federal law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, which includes substance abuse, many people remain wary about hiring or working with recovered addicts.

According to a 2014 John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health survey of 700 people, “respondents had significantly more negative opinions about those with drug addiction than those with mental illness, the researchers found much higher levels of public opposition to policies that might help drug addicts in their recovery.”

The survey found 22 percent of respondents said they would be willing to work closely with an addict (as opposed to the 62 percent of people willing to work with someone with a mental disability), and 64 percent of responders said employers should be able to deny employment to people with a drug addiction (compared to the 25 percent of people who said employers should be able to deny employment to people with a mental disability).

The survey did not differentiate between current drug users and recovering addicts, said John Hopkins Communications Associate Susan Murrow.

“While drug addiction and mental illness are both chronic, treatable health conditions, the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition,” study leader Colleen L. Barry, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins said in a press release about the survey. “In recent years, it has become more socially acceptable to talk publicly about one’s struggles with mental illness. But with addiction, the feeling is that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much drug use is illegal.”

According to a 2016 National Employment Law Project report, “Studies have shown that if hiring discrimination takes place, it is most likely (76 percent) to take place at the first interaction: the submission of a job application. Applicants who indicate a criminal record on these applications are much less likely to get a call-back: 34 percent of whites without a record were contacted, while only 17 percent of those with a record did; and among African Americans 14 percent without a record got a callback, but only 5 percent of African Americans with a criminal record heard back from the potential employer.”

Additionally, the report stated “while nearly all employers would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ hire applicants on public assistance, with lengthy unemployment spells, or other ‘stigmatizing characteristics,’ only 40 percent would give the same consideration to applicants with criminal records.”

Like Vaders, Masel knows what it feels like to be sidelined because of his past.

“It sucks having the feeling that you’ll be written off because you put a check in a box,” said Masel. “A lot of people who are in recovery, if they’re taking it seriously, that’s saying a whole lot. They’re trying to produce an entire shift in their life on an emotional and mental basis, how you work in society — there’s a lot to it.”

Part of that process, all three volunteers agreed, involved learning to have honest conversations with not only yourself but with your family and community.

Conversation and communication is the key to working through many of the issues recovering drug addicts face, Keaty said, both during their own healing process or breaking down the stigma that surrounds drug use and addiction.

“Addiction is a conversation starter,” she said. “This is really key. Everyone else is already talking about how horrible the epidemic is. We don’t look at it that way. This is an opportunity… And so what we do at Battlefield is say, ‘this is a conversation starter.’ And what we do, we teach the language to have the conversation to reconnect family, the addict and the community.”

Being honest, Wahl said, was one of the best decisions he made when it came to looking for employment.

“Some people fake it until they make it, but I don’t believe in that, because eventually you’re going to have to be real and you’re going to have to come clean to the world,” he said. “It has worked to my advantage, when I was honest with an employer, and I got a job out of it.”

Masel agreed with Wahl’s sentiment.

“A big part of people being able to understand and look at addicts differently is for addicts to not be afraid of telling people where they come from, what they’re doing, how they’ve changed and who they are,” he said. “Just keep putting yourself out there and don’t be afraid to show who you are.”

According to the National Employment Law Center, a survey of California employers found “if they knew the nature of an offense, their willingness to consider hiring a worker varied significantly, with 23 percent willing to hire a person with a drug-related felony.”

Additionally, another study showed “having personal contact with the potential employer reduced the negative effect of a criminal record by approximately 15 percent.”

“We’re not bad people,” Wahl said. “A lot of these people, if they got the chance to talk to an employer, just like some other person… a lot of people would just be impressed, period, if they heard the story that people went through and how much they’ve overcome.”

 

Photo courtesy of Angie Keaty.