Heroin Epidemic

His Girls Discipleship offers free, low-cost rehab to Manatee County addicts as need skyrockets

MANATEE -- A group of women sat in the bright living room of a west Bradenton home Friday morning, talking and sharing breakfast. There were donuts, coffee and smiles -- no hint of the addictions and drug-filled pasts they all share.

They are all part of His Girls Discipleship, a year-long rehabilitation program for women trying to leave drug addictions behind for a better life.

Krystal Bostick, 25, is one of these women. She overdosed on heroin three times within three months starting in October 2014 when she overdosed with her daughter at her side in the vehicle.

"It was like a nightmare. I didn't wrap my mind around it until they took me, and they brought her in the ambulance, and she was crying and said: 'Mommy, you turned blue,'" Bostick said, her voice cracking. "And that was the worst thing that I've ever been through before, because I never really knew that I had a problem."

Now, after four months with the program, Bostick has a job and is starting college classes in the fall to become a nurse, so she can give hope to people like herself. She has supervised visitation of her 5-year-old daughter and hopes she'll be able to see her unsupervised soon.

The need for rehabilitation availability has never been greater in Manatee.

Since the 2011 closing of the so-called pill mills, where addicts could get prescriptions for pain medications they didn't need, more people have been turning to heroin. That has been particularly dangerous in Manatee County, as officials say the heroin supply is getting mixed with fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller. The number of overdoses skyrocketed from 339 in 2013, to 700 in 2014, to 918 through July.

Openings in drug addict treatment programs, with funding options available for those at low or no income, are increasingly rare in Manatee County. Centerstone Florida, the only treatment facility in the county that receives public funding to provide free treatment to addicts, consistently has at least a month waiting list for its inpatient recovery program, which lasts a month.

Absent a comprehensive, residential treatment option, typical heroin addicts will continue using, risking death with every dose. The program His Girls Discipleship is trying to provide another option.

The program, funded mainly by support from The Bridge Church and private donations, uses faith in God to bring drug addicts back to a clean life. The program just opened another Manatee home last month and has six open beds out of a total of 16 spots.

The women live in one of the two houses -- either for free or at a low cost, depending on their ability to pay -- go to Bible study classes and take lessons in parenting, anger management, morality, economics and more to help them live a normal and sober life without drugs.

The first three months are focused on classes, and then Tracy Lajeunesse and Catherine Morton, program operators, work with each woman on their next path, which is typically school or work. The remaining nine months are spent on a combination of classes with the program and work or school. Everyone who works with the program is an unpaid volunteer.

Since Lajeunesse and Morton took it over in August 2013, 26 women have been through His Girls Discipleship, eight have completed it and stayed sober, eight are now in the program and 10 left before finishing.

Program leaders said the process for qualification is informal. They take calls for help and try to get the girls into the house as quickly as possible.

Lifetimes of addiction

Gloris Robinson had been involved with drugs for nearly her entire 63 years. She has two children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, but she missed major portions of their lives. Robinson has only been with His Girls Discipleship for two months, but she says she's relieved to finally be at a place where she can feel peace.

"It's very hard to be here, and think about the life that I could've had if I only didn't get into drugs," she said.

Katie Albritton, 28, has had several health problems brought on by her heroin addiction that required months in the hospital. Her latest stay came in November after someone hit her neck with a bat while they were in a drug house, paralyzing her from the neck down. They dumped her by a ditch. She was lucky: Doctors were able to restore her movement.

"My doctor told me that if I didn't change I was going to die, and I told him, 'I'm OK with that,' and he said, 'No, you have too much going for you. I'm going to get you through this and I'm going to help you with whatever you need help with. Just please change,'" Albritton said.

"And that was the first time that somebody had ever cared about me that much, that I had felt that love."

After eight months with the program, Albritton is now getting her GED and wants to look into addiction services as a career. In May, she saw her 4-year-old son for the first time in two years, and she's seeing him again in two weeks.

Of the women interviewed Friday by the Herald, Lynette Riganto, 48, was the only one who has completed the program. Before starting in the house in December 2012, Riganto said she had 29 arrests over 10 years and struggled with addiction for two decades. She now has moved to Colorado, where she completed her first year of college, will become a licensed minister next year and is about to start working at a house similar to the one that brought her to sobriety.

The main focus of His Girls Discipleship is to show the women they are strong enough to quit drugs with God's help, says Lajeunesse. They give the women a support system and a family environment to lean on. Many drug addicts believe they aren't worth anything, and Lajeunesse wants to show them that they're wrong.

"These girls come in and say: 'Why do these people care about me?' They need to learn that they have worth," Lajeunesse said. "Honestly, I'm in awe of these girls -- they're my heroes. I hear their stories and can't even imagine."

Addicts reach out

The program operators say they are in the preliminary stages of creating a similar program for men, which they hope to have up and running within a year.

Morton, a drug addict herself until the 1990s, says her experiences made her passionate about helping addicts. Albritton found Morton's number while she was in the hospital and called, saying she needed help.

"She was like: 'I'll be right there.' She came right up," Albritton said, smiling. "And she's been such a blessing in my life. She came to the hospital every chance she got. It was just amazing."

Lajeunesse and Morton decided a year was an appropriate amount of time to try to teach women a better way to live -- to replace old drug habits with productive ones and help them rebuild their lives after the program.

"Girls come in and say: 'Oh my gosh, a year? I have to do this for a full year?'" Lajeunesse said. "And my answer is always: 'You spent a lot of years using, and I only get a year to change all that.'"

The recovering addicts all said they tried to quit using other programs before and nothing worked. They say the faith foundation and familial and supportive atmosphere have helped them stay away from drugs. For many, it feels like the first true family they have had.

"They show me what is right and don't condemn me for what I do wrong," Bostick said. "I needed that."

And all of them talk about not caring whether they lived or died while they were addicted, or how close they were to dying. Now, each talks about personal and professional goals -- whether it's getting a job, going to school or getting closer to their children.

"God doesn't punish me for who I used to be," Bostick said. "So why should I punish myself?"

Anyone looking for help from His Girls Discipleship or to make a donation can contact Tracy Lajeunesse at 941-840-9447.

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby.