May 2014
eVolume 1, Issue 2

You notice the eyes first – dark, intense, wary. But right after that, you see the grin – wide, eager, proud. A quick handshake follows and you wonder how this person could have become a drug addict.

“I’m getting ready to start grad school,” says Theresa Handleman when asked where she is now. “I’ve been accepted academically,” she adds. “But because of my felonies, they might not let me in.” The contrasts in this woman are jarring. As she talks about her work, her family and her hobbies, it’s hard to believe that her first child was born when she was in prison and lived there with her for nearly five months. Or that she had lost custody of both her children by the time she was 26.

But this is the life of a former drug addict, whose mission now is to open a therapeutic foster home for children of parents in jail or in recovery programs. A participant in RUPCO’s Family Self Sufficiency program, Handleman is well on her way to achieving her goals. After years of drug abuse, several prison sentences, recovery, relapse and more recovery, Handleman has now been clean for seven years.

The beginning of the story is sad, but all too common. Handelman’s large family struggled as she was growing up and life was always a challenge. She had an abusive childhood, mentally and physically. She was suicidal by the age of 12 and fell heavily into drugs and alcohol. “I was so unhappy. In 8th grade I had my first suicide attempt and that’s when I started getting high. Drugs filled what I missed and getting high gave me a purpose. My first arrest came just a year after high school. My father agreed to hire a lawyer, only if I remained completely grounded to the property through the trial. Instead, I ran away from home. After becoming homeless, I met a man, moved to the Bronx with him and ended up two months pregnant just as I was sentenced to jail.”

Handleman was in and out of jail for two decades before she really became conscious of her behavior pattern. “It hit me. I saw God in jail. I had a spiritual awakening. I became determined to turn it around. I didn’t want to just ‘survive’ life, I wanted to “live” life.” Handelman joined a GED class to brush up on her math. When she was released, she tried to start college but was denied. “I had to wait for a year to reapply, so I did volunteer work.”

In full recovery mode, she volunteered in the office at the New Progressive Church, helped raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse, volunteered at Helping Hand’s Soup Kitchen and People’s Place and was a member of the Prevention Connection Coalition. With just SSI income and housing with Gateway to start, she got a Housing Choice Voucher with RUPCO in 2008.

In 2009 Handleman was accepted at Ulster County Community College (UCCC) where she majored in Human Services and joined RUPCO’s Family Self Sufficiency program. “FSS matches eligible families with existing community resources and services to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency,” says RUPCO’s Sierra Smith. “We help people set goals, find resources and programs to help them achieve the goals, then set new ones.” According to Smith, Handelman has been a perfect match, “trucking through school, working internships and helping other people climb out of hopelessness.”

At UCCC, Handelman was very successful and was nominated for a scholarship that took her on to Mount. St. Mary’s, where she graduated with honors. “I have Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and in Human Services and I’m a member of two honor societies,” says Handleman, sounding a little surprised by her own accomplishments.

RUPCO helped. In the FSS program she set goals and met them. “First a driver’s license,” she said. “Then a car, which I had to pay for.” She went on to get out of debt, complete college, find work and save some money. “I’m self-sufficient now,” said a beaming Handelman. I no longer receive the SSI that I once needed to survive. My next goal is my Master’s, then I hope to buy a house. After that, the therapeutic foster home. I have to make amends.”

Today, Handelman is reconciled with her family, holds down two jobs – one at Rehabilitation Support Service, an OASIS licensed IOP half-way house for people with substance use disorders and one at New York Recovery Home, a private treatment facility. She works cognitively with clients on a daily basis to help them turn their lives around. “I’m not proud of my past,” she says. “I hurt many people and had no regard for the law. But you can’t let the guilt bring you down. I’m no longer that selfish person and I make amends by giving back.”

“She has been such an inspiration to me and I would love to share her journey with others so they can be inspired as well,” says Smith. “I have many clients like Theresa, determined to seek out the support needed to move forward. Because of the support services available in our community, Theresa is now in the work field, directly affecting others like herself in a positive way.”

The interview is over. Handelman has to get to an appointment. With two grown daughters, two granddaughters, a job and grad school ahead, she loves her life and has a lot to live for. It’s very clear that Handelman is now on a mission and she’s not going to be diverted. And as she is helped by RUPCO in her recovery, she helps other people with theirs. But first there’s a hug – and that grin – and those dancing eyes. Theresa Handelman is on her way.

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