Steering Addicts Toward Hope

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MILLVILLE, N.J. -

Would you give somebody more than a second chance? Maybe a third? A fourth?

For some people, a second chance isn't enough. And when it comes to addiction, either to drugs or alcohol, a third or fourth chance can save a life.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from September 2016 to September 2017 almost 68,000 people died from drug overdoses in America.

Michael DeLeon was given many chances throughout his life of addiction, and he wasted many of them. But he fought through his demons and is now teaching others what it is like to wrestle with addiction and helping those who still struggle with it.

DeLeon is the founder of Millville-based Steered Straight, a motivational speaking group that talks to children, parents, and just about anybody else willing to listen about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Instead of having, for instance, a police officer speak to students about drugs and alcohol, ex-offenders, who have real-life stories about what has happened to them, tell those stories to the students instead as part of the group's mission.

According to steeredstraight.org, the group is there to help children make the right choices in life about drugs and alcohol and "steer youth toward making sound, rational decisions by creating a learning experience that provides them with a message of reality and helps them to make positive, informed choices."

The group offers 27 different presentations, each geared toward a different audience. Some topics include "table talks" for parents, good decision making, and positive behavior for students.

"I didn't think the cautionary tales being told to me were going to be my story," says DeLeon, who had fallen into drugs and gang life in the 1990s.

In 1997 he pleaded guilty to murder and was given five years in prison with a plea bargain.

While in prison DeLeon pitched an idea he had to the Department of Corrections. The idea was to have kids hear from other kids who had been in prison. It was to bring the inmates out to the kids, in a respectful consequential way.

"The best messenger for a kid to listen to another kid would be kids that have suffered the consequences,"  DeLeon says. "So, you take some of these kids that are in prison, out in their prison jumpsuits, to talk to kids in school."

While in prison, DeLeon helped start Project PRIDE (Personal Responsibility in Drug Education). As part of the initiative, inmates went out to area schools to talk about the consequences of drugs and their own personal actions.

Watch Michael DeLeon on 'Road to Recovery'

DeLeon thought Project PRIDE was such a useful tool to reach today's youth that after he got out of prison he started calling schools asking if he could talk to their students.

But being a former inmate meant that it was difficult for anyone to take him seriously.

"They didn't want the ex-con to come and talk to their kids about anything," says DeLeon. "I'm the last person they wanted in their school. I can't be a teacher, I can't be a coach, I can't be hired by a school district. I'm a felon. If they do a background check they won't hire me."

With that avenue out of reach, DeLeon started volunteering where ever he could.

While in Newark in 2002, then-Councilman Cory Booker took notice of DeLeon while he was doing a presentation at the Boys and Girls Club in Newark. Booker would go on to talk to the Board of Education in Newark, which allowed DeLeon to speak at schools in the city.

"I did 37 schools in Newark," says DeLeon. "Middle schools and high schools and I knocked their shoes off. I wowed them. The teachers, coaches, and principles were like, 'Oh, my God, we've never seen kids sit quiet for an hour! We've never seen kids react to a speaker like this ever.'"

But as fate would have it, DeLeon was in a car accident, which led to doctors prescribing him pain medications to help him deal with the pain while recovering. 

DeLeon would later relapse on cocaine and heroin and was put back in jail from the end of 2002 through 2007.

After being released from prison for the second time, DeLeon knew that he was given a second chance at life.

"I knew I wanted to talk to kids about drugs, but then I failed my own message," he says. "Since 2007, I said, 'I'd never fail again. I'll never let you down, I'll never fail again.'

"I was going to make a huge difference, and I wasn't going to fail this time."

Since then, DeLeon has traveled to 40 U.S. states, talking to nearly six million students in the process. DeLeon estimates he spoke close to two million students in 2017; this year he says he will speak to more than two and a half million.

Steered Straight, the nonprofit he started after his second stint behind bars, now has 16 motivational speakers that travel and encourage students to live a positive life.

With all of this traveling and speaking, DeLeon doesn't get a paycheck (the speakers do) but he is rewarded.

"I volunteer," he says. "I don't get paid. I don't get paid to speak, I don't have a salary, I have no compensation whatsoever. This is my volunteer life mission."

A former furniture salesman, DeLeon quit and went to Cumberland County College to became a certified alcohol and drug counselor. Around this time, his best friend lost his 22-year-old daughter to a heroin overdose.

But this was only the beginning of a string of losses that DeLeon would experience in relation to others' heroin overdoses.

"I had a caseload of 26 kids that I was counseling and I lost four of them to a heroin overdose in a 10-day period," says DeLeon. "I went to four funerals in 10 days — for an 18-year-old girl, a 19-year-old-boy, 22-year-old boy, and a 23-year-old boy."

In 2010 through 2011 Deleon filmed a documentary called Kids Are Dying, which followed heroin addicts in Camden.

While filming the documentary DeLeon realized how big of a heroin problem there was, not just in New Jersey, Camden, and Philadelphia, but across the whole country.

In addition to traveling the country and speaking, DeLeon has released four documentaries overall, each showcasing how drugs are affecting America. He says he is working on a fifth, titled Higher Power.

DeLeon also hosts a weekly TV show on SNJ Today called Road to Recovery. On the program, Deleon speaks with guests on topics such as drug addiction, rehab, detox, personal stories, support, and education. He's taped hundreds of episodes. 

"One of my favorite episodes was Cory Booker," says DeLeon. "Now he's a U.S. senator in Washington, one of the leading Democratic senators in the entire country, [but] he was the first guy that helped me." 

Darla DeLeon is the administrator of Steered Straight, and is also Michael's wife. She explains why it was so difficult to raise their family by herself when her husband was in prison. 

"By yourself, with children, it's very very difficult to be by yourself, because your loved one who is incarcerated has three hots and a cot and you're out there trying to pay your light bill, your car payment, your insurance, and food for your children," she says. "You got to sleep apart, you wake up apart, you have collect phone calls that are astronomical, it's just very difficult emotionally."

Darla isn't the only person to go through difficult times. Their children also had to deal with the fallout of Michael's addiction and his time in prison.

"Our kids went through a lot," says Darla DeLeon. "I sent our son to live with my dad for a while because he needed more of a male figure in his life that he obviously did not have.

"My daughter, she had a difficult time as well, especially when he got out the first time. That was when we had the issues with the gang stuff — she had a gun pointed at her head, that's pretty traumatic for a five year old, also for me."

With Steered Straight, DeLeon is now talking about recovery and helping others get through the trials of addiction.  

"I'm trying to get people to understand addiction, understanding the importance of reaching out for help, but also understanding the power of hope, that people do recover," says DeLeon. "I put $3 million of heroin and cocaine in my arms. I died six times. If I can recover [anyone can]. "

To learn more about Steered Straight visit steeredstraight.org, or to watch episodes of Road to Recovery go to snjtoday.com/roadtorecovery.

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