MENDHAM, N.J. - Kathleen, a bright eyed teenage girl stood up from her desk as she finished an English class Thursday. Minutes earlier, she had discussed a composition assignment with her teacher.
Although resembling a prep-school student, Kathleen had a different background. Just eight months earlier, she was shooting heroin daily and snorting coke, and was "on the run" from police - and when picked up on drug charges, she assaulted a police officer and kicked out his patrol car window, she recalled Thursday.
Standing in Daytop Mendham adolescent substance abuse rehabilitation center, she talked of how her future now looks very promising, and how she looked forward to college and a career in psychology or social work. Her transformation, she said, was due to the Daytop program.
Town of Essex farmer Sandy Lewis, a retired Wall Street executive, is proposing to establish a similar program in Essex County. His preferred site is the former Essex County Home in Whallonsburg, next to his organic farm operation.
Lewis is seeking community support for such a facility, a necessary first step before the state will allow it to open - so he sponsored a trip for county officials to visit the rehab center in Mendham.
Thursday, a group of Essex County officials spent a day in the Daytop Mendham facility, visiting classrooms, sitting in on group sessions and meeting with staff.
Moments after sharing definitions of vocabulary words - "veracity, charlatan, dearth and fallow" - with her four classmates, Kathleen talked about her life and future.
"I was a 'garbage head' - I'd take any drug to get high," she said. "I stole my mother's wedding ring and sold it to buy drugs."
She continued her harrowing tale.
"I look back and realize it's been hard to go through but I've gone through tremendous change - now I want to stay clean and do so much more for myself."
Kathleen said Daytop's program has transformed her life - from desperate dead-end addictions to a life full of fun and hope.
She's now aiming, she said, on a degree in psychology and a career as a school counselor, with an avocation of working with Habitat for Humanity.
As she headed toward another class, Kathleen credited the Daytop staff for her transformation, whether it was her English teacher's encouragement when he read her essays detailing her troubles, or how each counselor or staff member recurringly demonstrate how they truly care about the teenagers in rehab.
The Daytop center's program was working to help orient her in a new direction, Kathleen said, unlike various other programs and facilities she'd encountered.
"They care about you here and help you with your issues, no matter what they are," she said.
Each weekday at Daytop is filled with academic classes, followed by group sessions in which teens are coached on new approaches to their lives. These new attitudes and boosted awareness creates a sense of security, joy and fulfillment, the teenagers revealed Thursday in therapy sessions and interviews.
At Daytop, staff members and students greet each other by first names. Teen clients are encouraged to openly share their insecurities, fears and troubles, as well as their feelings of pride, hope, gratitude and accomplishment.
This occurs in group sessions several times per day - giving a voice to youth who before Daytop rarely expressed sentiments or feelings. Opportunities to do so include the program's Morning Meeting, or in evening sessions.
Morning Meeting is a two-part session, the first 20 minutes to air problems and disappointments, followed by 20 minutes for affirmations and joys.
One teenager talked Thursday about how several males, by kicking fruit over the cafeteria floor, showed disrespect for both Daytop and the other teens who had to clean up. He asked for the culprits to identify themselves and take responsibility - and a half-dozen teens stood up. Another boy also expressed dismay, noting a rest room had been trashed, and the toilet stuffed with towels. He also challenged the perpetrators to stand up. They did, amid non-judgmental comments from the teens. Brendan, a former addict, reminded them of their responsibility to their peers.
"We should be grateful for all the privileges we have," he said.
Others then talked about personal concerns. Kathleen said that her impending re-entry to society was scary because of the possibility of reverting to her old habits.
"I'm 'mad' nervous about going back," she said. Another teen talked about how hard it was to deal with the death of her grandmother. A boy talked about a feeling of personal rejection, and another client offered an apology.
Structure is a key element to the Daytop program.
Teen residents not only attend their classes and group sessions, but they are also assigned various responsibilities, including landscaping, cooking, cleanup and light maintenance. Lights are turned off in all dorm rooms at 10:30 p.m., and there's 24-hour monitoring by staff.
Structuring clients' time and behavior is key to the program's success, Daytop staff said. Not only are there high expectations for dress - shirts must be neat and tucked in, no sagging pants - but the teens are expected to be courteous, aware, helpful and to contribute to the facility's success. Not only are alcohol, drugs and cigarettes banned, but there are no cell phones, iPods, or such electronic devices allowed.
The teens generally attend one to two years.
Clients not only have drug addiction problems, but other issues as well. Some of the clients are intent on harming themselves by cutting their skin, others have eating disorders, and some are survivors of abuse and neglect, Daytop Managing Director Brian Gamarello said. He noted that most all Daytop's clients have gone through substance detoxification prior to admission.
About half of Daytop alumni enroll in college, and most all the other half go to work in jobs, officials said. Some Daytop alumni have studied at Ivy League schools, and more than a few have pursued illustrious careers in law, finance and science, they said.
After watching classroom activities and participating in group sessions Thursday, Essex County officials said they were impressed.
Lewis County Supervisor David Blades, a former state Trooper, said he was surprised with the courtesy, attentiveness and thoughtfulness that the teens demonstrated, particularly those who were reputed to be members of urban gangs. Blades was also a school principal and BOCES administrator.
"All my preconceived notions about rehabilitation have been blown out of the water," he told the teens. "I know you're going to be very proud of what you've accomplished in life."
Essex County Assistant District Attorney Brian Felton said he was impressed by how the former addicts took responsibility for their actions, whether it was the behavior in their past life, or now freely admitting to other behavior violations like littering, or snubbing others.
"It looks like the program is really making a difference in each of their lives," he said. "Each teenager is in a different phase, and you can detect a marked difference - it's very telling to the program's success."
He said he was surprised, as a prosecutor and county Drug Court facilitator, over their sensitivity to others' needs and feelings, openly talk about their own issues, and listen intently to both peers and adults.
"Their openness as to their past and their desire to change was amazing," Felton said. "Despite what they've been through, they still have hopes and goals."
After witnessing class activities and talking with Daytop officials, Sandy Lewis said he'd like to model a program in Whallonsburg similar to Daytop's.
"What I've seen in these classrooms is incredible, it's a real joy," he said. "The question now is, do the people of Essex County want it?"