Freddie Stevenson wasted 30 years of his life. He acknowledges this – not with sadness or blame, but with a stern determination to break the pattern.
He was, by his account, a normal kid of divorced parents; his mother worked as a police officer and his father for General Motors. But when Freddie turned 14, he fell into the life of the streets, with drug use and the violence that can follow in the steps of addiction.
The next three decades were spent ricocheting back and forth to jail in multiple states, with more than 25 felony arrests to his name. There were temporary breaks in the pattern; when he was 32 years old, he had the opportunity to play football at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. Benched by an injury, he fell back into his old pattern and went off to jail yet again, his college dream deferred.
“I was a piece of work. One day, I decided not only was I going to get well, but I would help others get well, too,” he said.
Released from prison in 2013, he’s now a second-year student at SUNY Broome, working toward a degree in Chemical Dependency Counseling. He’s already working in his field at Fairview Recovery Services, and giving back to his community as a football coach with the Broome County Stallions.
“I have this motto: no excuses,” he explained. “The way I look at it, each person has their job in a community, whether it’s as an educator or a teacher, an electrician, et cetera. I was a liability to my community, not an asset. Today, I want to be an asset.”
From convict to college
During his last stint in prison, a faith-based program made a major difference in his recovery and he received the Dallas Leadership Foundation’s Onesimus Hope Award. The program, he remembered, went above and beyond, which made him determined to help others in a similar way.
“You can’t rule out the natural elements of life like love and caring. I want you to know that I care,” he said. “Our stories and those connections are the things that bring us together.”
To change addiction treatment for the better, Freddie Stevenson needed an education – but his felony convictions proved a barrier to admission. That changed when SUNY instituted its “ban the box” initiative in September 2016, removing the admissions requirement that asked students to declare prior convictions.
Finding a job in the field was difficult for similar reasons, but Freddie found a stalwart advocate in Professor Mary Whittaker. She and staff at Fairview helped gain needed approval from the State of New York, which then cleared Freddie to work at the recovery center.
He hopes that his personal insights into addiction can help others attain healing and recovery. All too often, the treatment process is too short and relegated to a set period of time, not taking into account that addiction is a lifelong problem.
“The textbooks tell you that this disease is chronic. Then why is the treatment acute? If it’s a chronic illness, why doesn’t it have chronic treatment?” he asked. “We need more caring professionals. People are caught up in their own biases and don’t realize they have them. People don’t fully understand chemical dependency, and sometimes schools can’t prepare you for what you’ll see.”
Stories bring us together and Freddie Stevenson is willing to share his, even to an audience of strangers. He recently participated in “My Life, My Story” at Penn State, where his daughter is a student.
Going to college at the age of 51 — when people typically juggle family obligations and careers – can be challenging, he admits. But he pushes on, relying on his trusty motto: No excuses.
“I don’t quit. I broke the fences down trying to get into prison; nothing would stop me from doing the wrong things. Why not use the same energy to get good things done?
“I met a lot of beautiful people,” Freddie said of SUNY Broome. “My professors, I love them to death.”