The power of redemption means different things to different people, including the deliverance from sin and freedom from captivity.
For the former addicts profiled in this article, redemption means overcoming substances that once had power over their lives causing emotional devastation and, for a time, a painful disconnect with their loved ones.
These individuals are living proof that redemption is possible with the belief in something higher than themselves. Today, these local residents are living their lives to the fullest now that they’re free from the bondage of drugs and alcohol. They credit their sobriety to local programs that helped them stay on their path, the power of God, and the unconditional love they received from their friends and family. After the story was filed, however, the founder of Casa de Vida, Jose Moreno, died Oct. 19. This story is dedicated in his honor.
Jon of Ventura
Jon Cesario was 18 years old when he went to jail for 16 years for a gang-related shooting.
“I was loyal to all the wrong people and all the wrong things,” recalled Cesario of Ventura.
“I was surrounded by drug addiction … my addiction continued while incarcerated.”
Getting drugs like methamphetamine and marijuana was easy in jail, which he learned during his second week behind bars.
“While incarcerated I learned how to make wine; with wine, you can trade it for other drugs,” he said. “Methamphetamine was a drug that was really a monster in my life.”
Before his release the day before Thanksgiving in 2016, his life took a dramatic turn. With ill-intentions at the time, he was attending a church service where “I was there not to hear the word of God. I was there to hurt somebody. And the person never showed up.”
Instead, a man walked up to him and asked Cesario if he was willing to die for his family.
Cesario said yes, and to that, the man replied: “Why don’t you start living for them?”
“At that moment, it was like, everything I was doing, everything that happened in my life, I realized one thing — I don’t even know what it means to live for my family,” Cesario remembered.
The man invited him to a join a class, with a simple request to just listen.
“And for the first time, I was sitting in a group with men who were talking about living,” he said. “I kept coming back and started learning I had a serious problem, but there’s an answer; and surrounded myself with different types of men that were promoting recovery, God, change, hope, life.”
The experience made him clean and sober, and in his sobriety, he faced the painful reality of his past actions.
“I started learning people are being hurt because of the way I’m acting, the way I’m living — I’m not just doing time, everybody that loves me is doing time,” Cesario said. “They had to visit me for 16 Christmases, 16 birthdays, 16 Thanksgivings.”
These factors combined led to his epiphany: “I’m existing, but I’m not living. So I learned how to live.”
Around the time he was immersed in the Bible and his recovery, Cesario started writing letters to Jose Moreno, the founder of Casa de Vida in Oxnard, a nonprofit residential drug and alcohol recovery program that also provides aid to those facing incarceration for drug and alcohol offenses, or who find themselves in need of direction in their lives.
“I let Jose know that there was a possibility I’d be coming home after spending almost half my life in prison … that I needed to change my surroundings, I needed to be around people who understand the struggle,” Cesario said.
Today, Cesario is the house manager at Casa de Vida, which serves minors (with permission from their parents and judges) to men in their 70s.
When he was hired, it was the first job in his life.
“It’s been the face of my prayers, a second chance,” said Cesario, who is also about to graduate from the Addictive Disorders Studies Program at Oxnard College. “This is not a job. I drive over here excited about what the day holds.”
Looking back on the time of his life that was filled with drug addiction, he believes that “rock-bottom stops the minute you look up.”
“When you look up, you’re gonna notice people are gonna be there that you never knew were there; and God’s gonna be, like, those are the ones I sent your way to answer your prayer,” Cesario said. “When you look down, you don’t notice nothing. I finally looked up, and there was an arsenal of help — up until this day.”
House of Life
At Casa de Vida, which means house of life, at least 24 men graduate every six months, said founder Jose Moreno, who opened the home in Oxnard in 2005. Out of the graduates who stay clean and sober, “I believe at least 45 percent stay plugged in.”
Men who live there must abide by strict rules, including discipleship study starting at 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday. The men are also required to volunteer at least three hours of community service a day, such as removing graffiti from city structures, working with foster children at church, running in local marathons to raise money for charity, and fixing up bicycles to give to needy children during the holiday season.
“It’s required for them to have desire to change,” Moreno, 64, said. “Our part is to be constantly watching out for them; we also do follow-ups with people that have graduated.”
While some men relapse and need to return, “The next time they come we work out whatever issue they need looked at while they’re here,” Moreno said. For instance, if a man ends up homeless, “We put him in here — that’s a success. And from that comes whatever we need to do.”
A heroin addict for about 35 years, Moreno was introduced to drugs and gangs at age 14 and was incarcerated for the first time at 15. While his initial involvement with gangs began with selling drugs and not using, “I ended up tasting (heroin) and that was a big mistake.”
Back in the ’90s, “I was still running the streets of Colonia,” recalled Moreno, adding that during that time, he continually encountered Jason Benites, who is now assistant police chief of the Oxnard Police Department.
“The last time he stopped me was in ’97 when he was three years into the department — he booked me for under the influence,” Moreno recalled. “At that time, I was in the state of relapsing because I had stopped back in ’85.”
With help from Benites and others who wanted to help him stay straight, Moreno went to a recovery home in Santa Paula, which led to his enrollment in the Addictive Disorders Studies Program at Oxnard College to become a drug and alcohol counselor. In his sobriety, Moreno was then given the opportunity to run a drug recovery house in Saticoy.
“I ran it for seven years,” Moreno recalled. “Then I decided to go ahead and get my own rehab center.”
In March of 2005, Jose and his wife, Julie, founded Casa de Vida with the goal of helping individuals and their families overcome the problems of chemical dependence.
“It’s got to do a lot with them participating in the church,” Moreno said. “This is a faith-based program; I teach them how to be in the spiritual realm and also the natural realm.”
For instance, the 12 steps that they practice in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous “teach us what the drug is actually doing to us in the natural,” he said. “And the problem is a spiritual problem — the change has to come from within.”
Renewing of the mind is also a big factor — and something he’s reminded of every day.
“If my thinking doesn’t change, I can slip just like anybody else if I’m not careful,” Moreno said. “So that’s what I teach.”
A consistent practice at Casa de Vida involves assigning the men to write down five things that are troubling them and preventing them from moving forward.
“Most of it is the roller coaster they go through, like not being accepted, rejection, anger, all those things,” said Moreno, adding that anger management classes are part of his program.
Getting clean and sober “is not easy,” he emphasized. “But if the person really wants it, he’ll go through it. Whatever it takes, this is what needs to be done, step by step. Our mission statement is: reach, teach and release.”
To learn more about Moreno, see his obituary here.
“You can’t arrest your way out of a problem”
Jason Benites, Assistant Police Chief with Oxnard Police Department, said he is “very impressed” by the Casa de Vida recovery program.
“I believe it’s well-organized, has great leadership, and has credibility in its mission. Jose and his wife, Julie, do an excellent job.”
Because addiction is surrounded by stigma, Benites believes that “The first step is to look at people as people, look past the things that trouble them, and treat them with dignity and respect. Jose and his program do exactly that.”
From a policing perspective, “Good policing involves problem-solving and we realize that you can’t arrest your way out of a problem,” he added.
“If there’s some way that we can steer somebody from their troubles, be it addiction or some other problem, it’s better for the entire community because it eliminates the possibility of this becoming a circular problem,” Benites said. “In other words, if there’s a possibility to give someone an opportunity to break out of their situation, that’s preferable to arresting somebody.”
Addiction is widespread
The biggest myth surrounding addiction is that “It will never happen to me or my family,” said Nancy Swanson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who’s the co-founder and clinical director of the Tribe Integrative Recovery Treatment Center in Camarillo.
“Addiction is widespread, with people from all walks of life affected,” said Swanson of Ventura.
She noted that a recent national survey found that more than two-thirds of American families have been touched by addiction, either alcohol or drugs.
“It is happening in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in our very own families,” Swanson said.
Still, only 10 percent of those suffering from addiction ever enter treatment.
“This happens for a variety of reasons, and Tribe tries to remove any obstacle interfering with getting the help you need,” Swanson said. “Tribe is unique in how it approaches addiction. We don’t only think outside the box, we have no box. We have the ability to customize each client’s treatment experience.”
Tribe integrates evidence-based programming including mindfulness-based relapse prevention, acceptance and commitment therapy, neuro–linguistic programming, dialectical behavior therapy and the trauma resilience model.
Additionally, Tribe implements cutting-edge neuroscience such as EMDR, neurofeedback, virtual reality and cranial stimulation.
“But it is the power of a positive peer group that makes the difference,” Swanson emphasized. “It is the connections that are formed, and the support of a like-minded community that is life-changing. That is why we called our program Tribe.”
The only requirement to come to Tribe is the desire to improve your life.
“We will meet clients at all stages of acceptance and commitment to sobriety; we work with the ambivalence and fear often associated with early recovery,” Swanson said. “And we work with the hopelessness of the chronic relapser. All we ask is that the client maintains an open mind and willingness to work hard at getting better.”
Relapse vs. Recurrence
Swanson believes it’s more appropriate to replace the term “relapse” with “reoccurrence.”
“Once we begin to treat addiction as a chronic disease, not an acute episode, we will realize that addiction is not unlike other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma,” she explained.
All chronic diseases have no cure, she noted, and will grow worse over time if left untreated.
“Chronic disease can be prevented and managed,” Swanson said. “But even with the best treatment available, a chronic disease can reoccur from time to time.”
It is difficult to measure the success with a chronic illness.
“What is the definition of success in the addiction field? Is it total abstinence?” Swanson noted.
At Tribe, although abstinence is the ultimate goal, “We believe that stopping use is important but not the only indicator of success.”
For instance, if clients are embracing their adult responsibilities, are gainfully employed, living independently, self supportive, perhaps going back to school, surrounded by healthy relationships, and pursuing interests and hobbies, “We think they are successful,” Swanson said, adding that 100 percent of clients who invest 100 percent of their energy are successful at Tribe.
Alumni are encouraged to keep in touch, turn to Tribe when they are struggling, and return after a recurrence as they benefit from additional support and structure.
“They will be greeted with no judgment, no shame,” Swanson said.
It’s not how many times you fall down that is important — it’s how many times you get back up, she added.
“It may take you multiple attempts at sobriety,” Swanson said. “Even when you feel hopeless, try again. Each time you reach out for help you move closer to wellness. Keep coming back.”
A second chance at life
Katrina S., whose full name has been omitted to protect her privacy, graduated from Tribe Integrative Recovery in August of 2017 after spending three months in the program.
She entered Tribe after relapsing on cocaine, and during this relapse, she was shot by her drug dealer boyfriend.
“Luckily, I was given a second chance at life,” recalled Katrina, 24, of Ventura.
Before returning to Tribe, she went back into a residential treatment program, CRC Santa Barbara, where it was suggested that she enter an outpatient program for continuing care.
“After much resistance, I went to Tribe Integrative Recovery,” she said. “I liked their one-size-does-not-fit-all individualized treatment attitude.”
At Tribe, she gained the motivation to become the person she was before her addiction.
“It provided specialized therapy treatment to my needs specifically: neurolinguistic programming and BrainPaint (neurofeedback),” Katrina recalled. “It was also through Tribe that I found my true friends that wanted to see me grow.”
Last fall, Katrina went back to school and graduated from the University of Miami with a bachelor’s degree in music, focusing on music therapy. She then returned to Ventura County to pursue a career in the treatment field, and is currently taking classes in Addictive Disorder Studies at Oxnard College.
“It might seem daunting to try life without a crutch but you never know how wonderful life can be without your drugs,” she said. “It’s a long journey, but you will meet several people along the way who will impact your life for the better. It just takes patience.”
Two different worlds
Before Michele Ming graduated from Casa de Vida in November of 2011, she was in court facing eight years for drug sales, petty theft, “you name it — all drug related.”
She was preparing to enter another treatment program when a representative from Casa de Vida just happened to be in the courtroom.
“It seems like a better program for me,” recalled Ming, 57, of Santa Paula, whose addiction began with heroin, which led to cocaine and alcohol. She also got addicted to pain pills after breaking her ankle in 1997.
She served two six-month stints at Casa de Vida, where she lived with up to eight women in a home in Oxnard.
Today, now clean and sober, she serves on the board of directors at Casa de Vida; she also works as a handywoman during the day remodeling kitchens, bathrooms and offices; and at night, she is a caregiver for elderly members at Santa Paula Church of Christ.
Looking back on her addiction, and the woman she is today, “It’s two different worlds.”
“I tried so many times to do this for my family, for my grandkids, for my son, and that wasn’t enough for me,” Ming said.
“I finally realized if I don’t respect myself, there’s no way I can love anybody else; there’s no way I can be that grandma, that daughter, that mom that I should have been if I didn’t respect and love myself,” she said. “To describe how happy and how good my life is today — it takes my breath away.”