Here is a sample from the January 2016 issue of The Long Island Catholic Magazine. To subscribe click here.
From hopelessness to hope
By Lena Pennino
Father Frank Pizzarelli reflects on chemical and drug dependency on Long Island and the hope and healing taking place.
Heroin use on Long Island has reached epidemic-proportions, according to experts, leaving a wake of deaths, shattered lives and broken families.
“My greatest heartache is the growing heroin epidemic and the lack of long-term treatment beds and support services,” said Montfort Father Frank Pizzarelli, executive director and founder of Hope House Ministries, a Catholic organization founded in the spirit of St. Louis de Montfort that is committed to helping young people and families in crisis, especially those seen as abandoned and neglected.
Since 2010, overdose deaths from heroin have doubled in Nassau and almost tripled in Suffolk County, according to county records. The rate of overdose deaths is exploding nationally: almost a 300 percent increase between 2002 and 2013, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
There are theories as to why heroin use is at a high — including affordability and availability. In the past, it was the “fringe kids” who did heroin, said Father Frank. But now the drug is bursting into all categories of people, transcending “class, color, religion or social circumstance.”
The road to abuse may be paved by other drugs such as painkillers, marijuana or alcohol. Those most at risk for abuse are white men between the ages of 18-25 years old, living in metropolitan areas, according to the CDC, including suburbia.
In Suffolk County, there has been an increase in robberies, a good portion committed by heroin addicts, police reported. After drug abusers hock their own or family possessions; they move on to stealing from others: anything to feed the habit.
And the addiction is hard to kick. “You do not overcome a heroin addiction in a 28-day or 30-day program,” said Charles Russo, Chairman of the Board of Hope House Ministries. Although you can physically detox from the drug in a short time, “it is not easy to mentally detox,” adding that along with rehab, it’s important to identify and learn to deal with “your demons,” he said.
At a recent fundraiser that celebrated the 35th anniversary of Hope House Ministries of bringing hope to the hopeless, a screen flickered with mugshots of men, incarcerated for crimes fueled by addiction. But then, the presentation shifted showing photos of these same men smiling: reaching their dreams, graduating from colleges, law school, even one becoming a diocesan priest. Fifty graduates were there that night to say “thank you” to Hope House Ministries.
Currently more than 50 men are crammed into the Hope House Ministries long-term, nontraditional residential treatment program for addiction rehabilitation, according to Russo. And there are 25 men on the waiting list. The program is entirely funded on donations and fundraisers, he said. But there is good news. This winter, the men will have more space in a new place: The Little Portion Friary in Mount Sinai, formerly operated by the Episcopal Franciscan Brothers.
Hope House Ministries is purchasing more than four acres, but the buildings on the property were generously gifted to the program by the friars, in gratitude for Hope House continuing Christian ministry on the site, said Brother Dunstan, 94, an Episcopal Franciscan friar who has ministered at Little Portion since 1949.
When Little Portion Friary was put up for sale, the Episcopal brothers worried that their best option was to sell the property to the county as open space — the drawback was the buildings would have been demolished. Or worse, “there was this fear that it would get in the hands of developers who would put up condos and apartments,” said Brother Dunstan.
Father Frank read about the closing of the friary in Newsday, and wondered, “‘Could Hope House afford this?’ I had no resources. But when the word went out, people came forward.”
The amazing part of the story is that Hope House Ministries was founded at the friary 35 years ago. It all started when Father Frank — then a young and idealistic priest — volunteered to help out as a chaplain at the local hospitals at night. He was quickly overwhelmed by the trauma of young people, much from drug or alcohol abuse. He continued to reach out to troubled teens, even lending them space to sleep in the cafeteria at Infant Jesus Parish School in Port Jefferson where he ministered. He wondered if this was destined to be his full-time ministry, and took the next step, renting the guest house at the friary in 1980 to house and help homeless teens in crisis.
While the program quickly moved to Main Street in Port Jefferson, he never forgot the friary. “This was a miracle for me,” said Father Frank. “We were going back to where we started. There are four acres, a big old house with lots of nooks and crannies and quiet places to nourish the soul, mind and body and to pray.” There are also cottages on the property, a chapel and a bakery.
The space is big enough for dreaming. Noting that the young men love learning new skills, Russo hopes to build a wood shop on the premises, cultivate an organic garden, and perhaps even bring back the friars’ tradition of keeping bees and goats.
This is good news for the Hope House Ministries residential program that has been bursting at the seams for space. Now, there will be more elbow room for men like R.K. who entered the program in June.
R.K. lost his mom when he was two years old, and moved in with his aunt, an addict and alcoholic, living in the projects of Harlem. His aunt’s boyfriend used to hold him in one arm, while shooting heroin in the other. Neglected, he longed to have what other kids had: nice clothes, sneakers, enough to eat. By 13, he started selling drugs. When his aunt died, he dropped out of school, was arrested on gun charges and imprisoned. His only source of hope was his high school writing teacher and her mother, who wrote to him in prison. Eventually, they paid his bail and offered him a place to live as part of the family, paving the way for him to enter Hope House.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” said R.K. “This is a dream. Here, you can be anything you want to be.” He is taking one step at a time, but hopes to graduate college with a Master’s degree in business and own an auto mechanic shop.
R.K., along with the other men, have been helping to renovate the facility since September. The 80-year-old friary was in need of many repairs — with more to do. They have already restored the chapel, the roof has been fixed (thanks to $150,000 from generous donors), as well as dividing rooms to make more bedrooms.
On a recent cold night, the windows of the friary basement steamed and streamed from the heat of the ovens filled with rising loaves of bread: cinnamon raisin, rosemary and olive oil, and a Christmas loaf with Lindt chocolate and cranberries.
For the baker, Christopher Burke, there is a touch of providence in Hope House Ministries taking over Little Portion Friary. “I am in sobriety myself,” he said.
After losing a six-figure job as a head chef in a Manhattan restaurant, “I came to have nothing,” he said. “I was living a vulgar lifestyle full of hopelessness. I was a fallen down alcoholic. I had no place to go, I was out of money. I was drunk all the time.” He found himself at Hope House Ministries’ emergency shelter, Pax Christi. “It felt like a start rather than an end.”
After rehab, he was drawn spiritually to Little Portion Friary in Mount Sinai, to walk the prayer labyrinth. There he wandered the wood-chipped way, prayerfully pondering life’s twists and turns, seeking direction. The Episcopal brothers befriended him: offering him a place to live, if he would help them in the friary: cooking food for retreatants, baking bread for the local community, shoveling snow and making and fixing tombstones in the friary cemetery.
Now that the property belongs to Hope House Ministries, Father Frank has hired Burke as the full-time baker. “This is absolutely full circle,” said Burke. “This took me back to where it all began.”
Burke talks of his rekindled love for making people happy through food. “It is an absolute meditation,” he said, describing the physical labor of working with your hands and the detoxifying effects of the heat. He hopes to share this skill with the men when they move in. “It’s the gift of giving back,” he said.
That night, neighbors walked down the steps to inquire about buying bread for the holidays. Burke handed them a bag of freshly baked bread, revealing the words “hope” tattooed on his knuckles.
FOR MORE INFORMATION about help with chemical dependency or how you can help support Hope House Ministries contact:
Counseling Center/Administrative Office: Phone: 631.928.2377, E-mail: email@example.com
Development Department: Phone: 631.473.8796 or 631.474.4851, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org