Enrique Camarena acknowledged that he was only one person, but he knew he wanted to make a difference. He did, just not the way he envisioned.
Camarena worked his way through college, served in the Marines and became a police officer. After joining the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, he was sent to work undercover in Mexico to investigate a major drug cartel believed to include officers in the Mexican army, police and government.
On February 7th, 1985, he left his office to meet his wife for lunch. One month later, the tortured dead body of the 37-year old officer was found.
In honor of Camarena and his battle against illegal drugs, friends and neighbors wore red badges of satin. Parents, fed up with the destruction caused by alcohol and drugs, began forming coalitions.
Some of the coalitions took Camarena as their role model and embraced his belief that one person can make a difference. These coalitions also adopted the symbol of his memory, the red ribbon.
In 1986, the California State PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) adopted the Red Ribbon Campaign, which was organized by the National Family Partnership. In 1988, Red Ribbon Week was nationally recognized.
This year, October 23rd through 31st marked the National Red Ribbon Week celebration — an ideal way for people and communities to unite and take a visible stand against substance abuse.
Although Red Ribbon Week is only for seven days a year, the struggle against substance abuse is every day. Just ask Howard Friend, senior program director of Phoenix House in Venice, who walked the walk as a homeless heroin addict beginning at the age of 14.
One cold wintry morning in New York, Howard came out of the basement where he had slept in a thin jacket that night to find a man he used to do drugs with, and he marveled at how well the man looked. Howard took the number of Phoenix House from the man and never looked back.
What started out as recovery for Howard turned into a career for him.
Everyone has a specific work function in treatment, and Howard’s responsibility was to bring new people into the program. Apparently he was good at communicating the benefits of getting off drugs because he was offered a paying job.
“I didn’t have any other skills,” he says. “I started to really love the idea of helping other people.”
That was 40 years ago. Howard worked his way up in Phoenix House, which operates close to 100 programs in nine states and is described as the nation’s leading provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention services.
When Howard arrived in California in 1982 he opened up the Orange County and San Diego programs. In 1986, he helped with the transition from Tuum Est (it is yours), a drug treatment center which was established in 1970, to Phoenix House in Venice.
Howard has been back in Venice for the last two and a half years, and you know he is dedicated because his commute is 65 miles.
“I really couldn’t think of anything that I like doing better than working here and I can’t think of anything more satisfying than having guys come in struggling and watch them go through the process and go out and get a job and an apartment or go to sober living and see them be successful,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Phoenix House is at 503 Ocean Front Walk in a three-story brick structure built in 1913, originally a hotel in the heyday of early Venice.
You’ve probably walked by and noticed, not the residents, but the unusual detailing on the faÁade. The base of the first story is defined by massive engaged brick piers with molded top and spanned by a flattened arch opening, with a light color concrete molded hood.
The window openings of the top story are nicely detailed with soldier course lintels and lug sills.
Until May the side yard was a patch of grass. Thanks to Big Sunday weekend, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City of Los Angeles, with labor provided by volunteers and residents of Phoenix House, the patch of grass was transformed into an environmentally-friendly patio of brick, concrete and tile with drought-resistant plants.
Howard talks about the new patio with as much pride as he talks about the commitment of Phoenix House to be considered part of the community. He recently became a member of the Venice Chamber of Commerce in order to get the word out that he and the residents will help in any way they can.
One example is that during Red Ribbon Week the residents went to local schools to tell their stories and, thereby, hopefully prevent children from going down the wrong path. With the exception of a jail tour, what better way to influence a young mind than to describe the horrors of what drugs and alcohol can do for their future?
“It’s a great experience for the guys and a great experience for the kids,” says Howard. “They’re giving back to the community. Seeing that kids are really interested in what they have to say is a turn on because they feel good about themselves.
“We try to build up their self-esteem. It’s good that people respond by asking questions. It’s not like when you’re sitting in a penitentiary.”
The residents of Phoenix House are talking to those who can learn from their mistakes, and they are available to go to schools any time of the year. Tours of the facility are welcome.
Residents are also available to work, at no cost, at community events. Joe Wheatley uses the men quite often at Muscle Beach during his productions. If you need strong men for moving furniture, they can do that too, for which a donation would be appreciated. These strong men can always use contributions of clothing, including underwear, socks and shoes, especially large sizes.
For more information on Phoenix House Venice, (310) 392-3070 or www.phoenixhouse .org/.