Bikers team up to save addicts

HAMILTON - They're a hardened, ragtag group of bikers, tattooed and denim-clad.

She is petite, tiny even, her soft voice a stark contrast to their hearty laughter and back slaps.

But sitting outside on a sunny, breezy Saturday morning, she says they give her hope.

Many of them have been where she is now, swamped and struggling with addiction.

"They say your life is going to go on, there's hope," she said. "They really help to let you know there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

She is a 21-year-old addict who picked up her drug habit at Catholic school.

They are members of the Soldier of Christ Motorcycle Ministry, a group of born-again bikers who have teamed up with City of Angels, the Hamilton-based volunteer group dedicated to helping addicts and their families find help and support in the battle against drug and alcohol addiction.

Fifty to 60 bikers congregated July 31 at the Hamilton home of Tom "Redneck" Clark, a Soldier of Christ biker whose denim vest sports patches with sayings such as "Born Again Heathen."

The group, joined by other motorcycle ministries, was getting ready for a ride to spread awareness of addiction, to be followed by a picnic to celebrate sobriety and clean living.

"We have a problem in our community and people just sweep it under the rug," Clark said. "I've lived the problem. I'm sick of going to funerals and looking down at these young people who haven't even lived their lives."

The group has been working with City of Angels for about five months, providing support to addicts and families alike.

With City of Angels volunteers, they help stage interventions or sit with addicts when they're in the agonizing throes of detox.

Sometimes they travel in pairs, for missions akin to a search and rescue -- finding "a child or person in crisis."

Their size, their connections, their overall impression of toughness, sometimes allow them to go places the volunteers at City of Angels never could -- the drug houses, the hostage situations.

"We don't break the law," Clark is quick to state. "We work with law enforcement when we can, but sometimes we have to use a little intimidation to save a child."

The decision to work with City of Angels was an easy one.

"They've got the process down as far as the rehab, the treatment," he said. "They've lived through the addiction problem, they've buried their kids."

Indeed, City of Angels was started in January 2009, spurred by the 2008 overdose death of 24-year-old "KC" Meara, the son of Hamilton councilman Kevin Meara.

At a recent board reorganization meeting, the members of the 10-plus board laugh easily, tease and rib each other frequently.

But for most, the subject of addiction never strays far from their minds. Four, including Kevin Meara and his wife, Maryann, have lost children to overdoses, including one member whose son died only three weeks ago.

Meara said an image from his son's funeral sticks with him to this day.

It's his wife, Maryann, standing next to her son's coffin in a "floral print dress with her shoes off."

For hours she stood by KC's coffin, hardly moving.

"That's what got me thinking I don't want to ever see that again," he said.

So a group of family friends helped found City of Angels, filling what they say is a much-needed void in the resource-and-support-short world of treatment and addiction services.

The need is great, they say, and growing every day.

According to 2003 statistics from the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, the latest available, 2.5 million adolescents suffer from substance dependence. Among young adults ages 18 to 34, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent suffer from some form of substance abuse.

In 2009, more than 2,500 Mercer County residents sought treatment, most for problems with alcohol, followed closely by heroin and opiate addiction, and for adolescents, a growing reliance on prescription drugs.

But that figure isn't the whole story. Data from the New Jersey Substance Abuse Monitoring System takes into account only those people who seek state or county assistance when seeking treatment, not those who use insurance or enter a private treatment center.

And with the collapse of the economy, there is a different demographic of people needing to get assistance with help from the county or state, said Camille Bloomberg, chief of addiction services for Mercer County.

"The more people who have lost their jobs or health benefits, they cannot go to their private doctors, or private facilities," she said. "The faces are changing a little bit."

City of Angels and Soldier of Christ volunteers see the growing numbers firsthand.

When City of Angels started, the organization had a website and some business cards printed. But word soon spread that such a network existed, that volunteers could be reached day or night to wrangle with an insurance agent or try to persuade an addict to enter rehab.

"In January 2009, if you said City of Angels, someone would say "Huh?' said Meara. "But in June 2009 you could walk into any crisis center and say City of Angels and the name recognition would be there."

It's not typical for a group of volunteers to take on the tasks and responsibilities City of Angels does, Bloomberg said.

"We're hoping we can dovetail and work with each other not to duplicate services, but to have more services out there," she said.

Members of the group act almost as stewards through the world of addiction -- a family or friend might call their number, in tears over the fate that's fallen their loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The group provides support and can help stage interventions or call insurance companies, county and state agencies and private treatment centers until a bed has been secured, a spot in rehab grabbed.

Members counsel kids, and their families, letting them know that they're not alone, that there is help out there, people who have gone through the same problems.

"As a parent, you don't know anything," Meara said. "The support network is not what it should be."

There's no guidebook that instructs families what to do when their child, or wife, or brother gets snared in addiction.

"It's so taboo when you have a child with addiction," said Maryann Meara. "You feel closed off."

The stigma surrounding addiction feeds the secrecy, the lack of resources, and sympathy for those struggling with it.

Board member Justine Frank's son is a recovering addict.

He once sat in the ER for two or three days, she said, "but they didn't want to do anything for him because he's an addict."

"There are human beings behind addicts," she says passionately. "And yes, they hurt us, but they have value and worth. That's the stigma of addiction -- that somehow these people are less than us, they have no worth."

Reading about the death of Meara's son was a wake-up call to Dana Brandt, whose daughter has been using drugs since she was 18.

"When you start this, you're clueless," she said, "and when you meet these people, they have the tools."

"I have friends and family, but it's not the same as people who have walked in your shoes," Brandt said. "Your family and friends don't know what to say to you. City of Angels and Soldier of Christ and these other people are an extended family."

Everett "Tramp" Barber is pastor of the Soldier of Christ ministry, and he has been clean for 37 years.

He echoes Brandt. They, and City of Angels, are a family to those who need it.

"We love 'em, we hug 'em, we tell 'em to pray," he said.

"And we protect them," chimes in Clark.