San Diego program matches parolees with at-risk teens

01/05/2014 12:00 AM

01/05/2014 12:08 AM

A bespectacled man in a red tie and gray argyle sweater vest leaps up from his chair and tells a room of teenage boys dealing with substance abuse that he just got out of prison for killing a man.

“I wasn’t high or drunk. I just believed that he had it coming,” Eddie Pace III tells the group. “I killed a man who was a brother, a father … he had a newborn 9-month-old baby girl who he will never see.”

A hush comes over the young faces, grabbed by Pace’s words and warnings about where drugs, addiction and bad choices can lead.

The talks by parolees in recovery have become a Thursday night ritual at the fellowship hall at the Salvation Army’s Centre City Corps Community Center in downtown San Diego. The parolees and the teenagers come together to serve supper to the homeless and then share stories about where they’ve been. The aim is to help youths learn from the mistakes of the parolees, who want to make amends.

Gold stars dangle from the ceiling. A small, framed print of “The Last Supper” hangs behind Dick Lewis, a retired cop and Vietnam veteran. He begins the evening by urging the parolees to share their history with the teenagers, who are in a drug treatment program at The McAlister Institute.

“All you need to do is save young people,” Lewis tells them. “Talk about where they don’t want to go.”

Lewis, director of player outreach for the San Diego Chargers, said he started the Thursday homeless suppers about 15 years ago at the suggestion of the team’s owner, Dean Spanos, who pays for the food. Then Lewis invited the teenagers and more recently, the parolees from The Lighthouse, a residential therapeutic community for men and women on parole or probation with behavior and substance-abuse issues.

Pace said he can identify with the youngsters and understands not having role models and facing the repercussions of bad decisions. His parents were both addicts when he was young. He turned to selling cocaine. At 18, he was sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder for killing a man in a drug deal. His early years in prison were full of shock and denial. Then a friend and fellow inmate confronted Pace about taking responsibility for his actions.

“I’m the one who went out and sought out the drug deal and carried the weapon and caused the fatal shots,” said Pace, now 38. “All of that was my fault.”

That recognition was the first step toward moving forward. He obtained two associate degrees in business management and general studies and three certifications, including two toward becoming a drug counselor, all while in prison.

After serving almost 20 years, he got out in July and just started work in an entry-level management job with a cable provider. He plans to move from The Lighthouse to a sober living house.

Pace gets in the teens’ faces when he speaks. The response can be stand-offish, but then those moments of identification come.

“You might get a smile or body language. They might bow their head. I’ve even seen some kids cry,” Pace said.

Jeff Smith is asking two boys about how they started using drugs and their relationships with their parents. Smith, 42, is a recovering addict who has been in prison for possession, sales and distribution. He tells them about his early marijuana use.

“All I cared about was getting high,” Smith said. “I didn’t think I’d ever be in handcuffs.”

One boy, 15, nods his head. “It escalates,” he said.

Andrea Bejaran, 41, has forged a friendship with a 16-year-old girl she met at a supper. They’ve had lunch and spoken by phone about their shared history of drug abuse. Bejaran started having run-ins with the law at 11. She left home, became addicted to heroin and took to the streets.

“I know how it feels to be homeless and for not anybody to help you or want you,” said Bejaran, who in July was released from prison.

She’s clean now, working at a restaurant and looking for a chance to help others.

“It’s just a good feeling,” Bejaran said.

Bejaran and others talked about being humbled to serve the homeless at the supper and leaving with gratitude.

The number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless in the San Diego region is estimated at 8,900, said Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. Among the unsheltered, about 69 percent have been homeless a year or longer, 34 percent self-report a high level of substance abuse and 39 percent have severe mental-health issues, she said.

The need is constant, Diaz said.

“We’ve made great strides, but we’re not there yet,” she said.

The connection Lewis feels to the people he meets is personal.

“I can remember walking the alleyways of downtown Bay City, Texas, getting apples and oranges out of the trash can,” Lewis said of his youth. “Once they leave the Salvation Army, I know they’re going to have to sleep in some ditch or alley.”

Lewis said he is working more to locate family members of the homeless and help people get on their feet.

And on Thursday nights, servers and guests alike feed on good will, life lessons and compassion for each other. At night’s end, the group forms a circle, bow their heads in prayer and march into the darkness.

Pace said he wants the teens to know that they can change and grow beyond their worst choices.

“Never let your mistakes define who you really are, because everybody makes mistakes,” he said.

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