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Tom Archdeacon: From heroin to hope

This Valentine’s Day story almost didn’t happen.

Not because Cupid wasn’t shooting his arrow. It’s just that Whitney was shootin’ her dope.

“I was killing myself every day,” said 19-year old Whitney Weeden. “I thought about heroin when I woke up in the morning and I thought about it at night. By the end, I was spending $300 to $500 a day on my habit.”

And where did she get the money?

The question made her pause, not sure if she wanted to put voice to her vice.

“Aaaah…uuumm…prostituting, robbing. I did a lot of crazy stuff. If I had to sell drugs or go take my dad’s pills, it didn’t matter. I had to do it or I was gonna be so sick. But it was killing me.

“I did die three times from drugs and (was brought) back. The last time I was 16. Right before my dad died. I OD in the front seat of someone’s car and they called the ambulance. They pulled me out of the car and I was lying by the ditch.

“My dad pulled up, he was just getting back from a funeral — another heroin overdose — and he could barely walk, but they tell me he came running. I was gray or blue or whatever and he’s screaming, ‘What did you do to my baby?’

“I remember my mom saying she was watching my heart (monitor) and it went down and they had to hit me with Narcon. It went down again and they hit me with it again. I remember waking up and seeing lines and lines of cars stopped. And I was wondering, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

Whitney was recounting her not-too-distant past the other afternoon as she sat in the Darlene Bishop Home for Life — it’s an offshoot of the Solid Rock Church in Monroe — that helps young women who are struggling with addiction, homelessness, abuse and difficult pregnancies.

Soon she would be joined by her older sister, Courtney Boyd, the recently-inducted Brookville High School Hall of Fame basketball star who went on to a celebrated hoops career and a master’s degree at Wright State University, this past June won the NCAA’s prestigious Wilma Rudolph Student Athlete Achievement Award and now is a first-year substitute teacher and an assistant coach of the Bellbrook High girls basketball team, which is unbeaten and ranked No 3 in the state.

Courtney sat down and mostly listened, but later, when she was giving smiling affirmation to a point, you noticed an appreciative Whitney reach over and touch her arm. It was a small sign of tenderness and love that might seem inconsequential, but spoke volumes.

Not long ago, no one — especially these two sisters — would have thought that would happen.

A long-standing rift was fueled — on one side or the other — by a simmering anger, a sense of abandonment, hurt, guilt, a couple of fist fights and, on Whitney’s part, a growing sense of helplessness that gave way to more and more self-destructive behavior.

Along with the drugs and the street life, Whitney was hanging out with the Compton Varrio 155, a notorious gang whose roots are in California.

“I started thinking I’m going to have to bury my sister,” the 24-year-old Courtney said quietly.

And that’s not overblown assessment, especially when you come from where they do, State Park Place, Ill., a rundown community of urban decay and despair, rife with violence, drugs and gangs on the edge of Collinsville, some eight miles from equally-decimated East St. Louis.

Heroin, far more than even here, is its deadly scourge.

“That’s what kills everybody there,” Whitney said. “I honestly think that place is the devil now.”

Courtney’s best friend, Jennifer Herling, the girl with whom she rode bikes and shot basketballs in the street as a kid, was found dead in a heroin house in State Park in 2012.

Angel Torres, a friend of Whitney’s who had grown up on their street, died of an overdose a couple of weeks ago.

“That’s three people I knew in the last month,” Whitney said.

There have been others killed in the violence that surrounds that environment.

“I lost a friend from the gang who got his head blown off,” Whitney said. “And a beautiful, beautiful girl we knew was going to our little cousin’s baptism. She saw the enemy and ran towards the car to fight her and the other girl just stabbed her to death. Another guy we know also got stabbed.

“They had just come to pick me up, but I wasn’t there. That could have been me, too.”

No picket fences

At the sisters’ old school — Kreitner Elementary in nearby Collinsville — over 90 percent of the students live below the poverty line. The high school graduation rate in State Park is 30 percent.

“My childhood was not the typical American dream with a white picket fence,” is the way Courtney began the essay she wrote for the Wilma Rudolph award.

Her parents struggled with drug and alcohol problems. When they were home, their domestic scraps sometime drew police response.

Courtney was the oldest of their four kids and from the time she was 6, she was “mothering” her siblings.

“When Whitney started kindergarten, I made sure I got her up, gave her a bath every morning, had clean clothes ready, did her hair and got her fed,” Courtney said “Then we’d go to school together.”

Whitney agreed: “She was my mommy growing up.”

Courtney’s one escape from her adult responsibilities was basketball. Her dad had set up a portable hoop in the street and she shot there, day and night, in the snow, the rain and the heat.

The image many at Kreitner remember is that of the dark-haired girl, riding her Mongoose bike to school, one hand on the handlebars and the other cradling a basketball to her hip.

At school she found a guardian angel in Lori Billy, a second-grade teacher, who was also the basketball coach. She added Courtney, an eager and accomplished fourth-grader, to the fifth-grade team and that launched the hoops career that bore such fruit here in the Miami Valley.

Finally, after some eight years of seeing her parents’ situation deteriorate, 14-year-old Courtney had enough. With little Whitney standing next to her, she called an aunt who lived in Englewood and begged her to come get her.

“When I got off the phone, Whitney was crying,” Courtney remembered.

When the aunt showed up, Courtney stuffed her belongings in two garbage bags and left.

Back here, her living arrangements with her aunt eventually didn’t pan out and she was taken in by a cousin in Brookville, who let her live briefly in her basement.

Finally, she reached out to her freshman French teacher, Amy Boyd, whose husband, Brad, was a middle school teacher and the varsity wrestling coach. They had three kids, but they let Courtney come over for dinner and then weekends until she finally asked if she could live with them permanently.

In 2009 they adopted her and soon after that Courtney officially changed her last name to Boyd from Weeden.

Through it all the Boyds and their extended family have been loving and supportive and provided her with the kind of life she never had.

On the basketball court at Brookville, Courtney flourished, becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,576 points. Although she had several scholarship offers, she didn’t want to leave her newfound family, so she chose Wright State and prospered again.

Even a devastating knee injury that required two surgeries couldn’t stop her and she ended up playing 130 games, second most in program history, and scoring 990 points. Along with that she got a master’s in middle childhood education so she can help kids in need the way teachers like Lori Billy and the Boyds have helped her.

“I’ll be truthful, though, I had a lot of guilt,” Courtney said. “Like when we were on vacation, sometimes I’d cry. I’d think, ‘I’m on the beach and my brother and sisters are never going to experience this.’

“In the back of my mind, though, I always thought I was gonna go back and save them and give them a chance at life.”

‘Begging her to stop’

Back home, Whitney felt abandoned. Her older sister — her “Mommy” — had left for a new home, a new family, including parents she called “Mom” and “Dad,” and, as she’d discover later, even a new last name.

“I was drinking and smoking marijuana at about 11 or 12,” Whitney said. “I started partying and hanging out with people who were like 21 and when I was 13 I started hanging with gang members.

“That’s when I started heroin.”

Around that time the Boyds invited Whitney to Ohio for Christmas.

“Christmas was always rough for us as kids, so I wanted it to be special for her,” Courtney said. “She probably got double what everybody else got, but she didn’t know how to accept it. And as she sat there you could tell she was really angry with me.”

She said it finally boiled over into a fistfight that drew the attention of a Brookville policeman.

Regardless, the Boyds asked Whitney to stay with them and at first she considered the idea.

“But when she called our biological parents and told them, it just broke our dad’s heart,” Courtney said. “He was really upset and she got scared and went home.”

After returning to State Park, Whitney soon felt she had “blown” her opportunity to live in Ohio and as her despair escalated, so did her drug use.

“I know my dad was begging her to stop,” Courtney said. “They were finding needles all over the house.”

In September 2013, 51-year old Tony Weeden died of a massive heart attack.

A crushed Courtney returned to State Park and, realizing no one was able to cover the funeral costs, she signed her name to an $8,600 note so her dad could be buried next to his two brothers, one who died of AIDs and the other who was killed in a motorcycle crash.

The Boyd family, as well as others in Brookville and at Wright State, made donations to ease the burden on her.

Whitney, though, had no such support group. She took her father’s death equally as hard and spiraled further toward oblivion.

“I was doing 9 to 10 buttons (capsules) of heroin at a time and mixing it with Xanax,” she said. “I was becoming nothing but evil. I did stuff I never imagined myself doing and I know I was really mean to my sister.”

Although communication between them stopped for a while, Courtney said she was in a Chicago hotel room — ready to go play UIC — when she got a call from her sister:

“She was higher than a kite and I really couldn’t understand her. She kept repeating herself and falling asleep and at first I wasn’t sure why she called.”

But the more she thought about it, the more she realized it was a grasp for help.

By then, Courtney’s younger brother Tony was living with the Boyds. Younger sister Tiffany had lived here briefly and then returned to State Park. But Whitney was floundering and, Courtney feared, near death:

“Right after the basketball season was over, I sat down with my parents and said, ‘I got to give it one more solid shot. I’d feel guilty if she died. I’ve got to go try to save my sister.’ ”

Friends again, finally

Courtney had no plan. She drove to State Park and the first person she sought was Lori Billy, who, like always, was there for her.

Billy got her in contact with Dr. Kari Karidis, the assistant principal at Collinsville High, who had lost her 23-year-old son to a heroin overdose and since then had become a public crusader against the drug.

“Whitney had hit rock bottom,” Courtney said. “Mom had kicked her out of the house. She looked terrible. She was wearing the same clothes for days at a time and she had no food to eat.”

With Karidis’ help — and Amy Boyd working the phones back home — Courtney tried to find a detox facility that would take her sister, who was lacking a personal ID and medical documentation. When one couldn’t be found right away, Courtney returned to Ohio, then drove back to Illinois with Amy.

Together with Karidis, they found a hospital in Greenville, Ill., 45 miles away, but getting Whitney out of the drug house and away from her gang pals was another ordeal that became physical.

Whitney was in pain and begging for more heroin so she could “get off sick,” as she called it.

Finally, an understanding cop agreed to hold her in jail overnight on a minor outstanding warrant until the hospital could admit her for a 30-day stay.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Courtney said her grandmother was given a flyer about the Darlene Bishop Home and although they knew nothing about the facility, they soon saw it as their only option.

Karidis then reached out to an Illinois judge got Whitney’s legal problem boiled down to one directive: Go to the Darlene Bishop Home or go to jail.

With her grandmother and the “prayer warriors” from her church praying for Whitney and helping with the $600 a month bill, Courtney got her sister into the home and what is a 12-month program alongside seven other young women with similar circumstances.

“They tricked me,” Whitney said with a smile. “At first I was really mad at everyone. I was cussing everybody and I don’t think anyone thought I’d make it.”

The program has strict rules and for 30 days no one from the outside could contact Whitney.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but when my mom and I finally came out here, she told us she loved everybody and was getting baptized,” Courtney said. “They told her she was saved and her life has been saved. Another week back home and she may have been dead. Now she’s been clean 10 months.”

Whitney is now getting 12-hour passes from the facility every two weeks. Recently she started a job waitressing at a nearby restaurant. On her pass days, she often accompanies her sister to the Bellbrook games or back to watch Wright State play.

“She and Tony run around there like two little kids,” Courtney said. “She’s finally getting to experience these feelings she never did before because she was high. This is her first time ever to just be happy.”

Whitney laughed at that: “It is really neat. The clean and sober Whitney is back and all I do is smile, smile, smile. They call me Smiley in here.

“We were in the car a while back and this song by R. Kelly — ‘The Storm Is Over Now’’ — came on. My sister said, ‘The storm is over for you.’”

The best thing of all is that the sisters have become friends again.

“I was so mad at her for the longest time and now I’ve come to really love her and appreciate her,” Whitney said.

Courtney, who now goes to Solid Rock as well, smiled at the thought:

“I never thought we’d be able to have the relationship we do now. She’ll come up to me at church and give me a hug and just tell me she loves me.”

Whitney looked over at her and nodded: “I have come such a long way from my old lifestyle. I feel really good now. I found out who I really am.

“I found my heart again.”

On Valentine’s Day, what could be better?

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