The Denver Post
The Garcia family's angels appeared in shirts and ties, singing "Feliz Navidad" as they approached the house on Umatilla Street.
Santa drove up behind them pulling a trailer packed with so many presents, it took the more than 30 men several minutes to carry everything inside the Denver home.
Taking it all in, Cristobal Garcia, 11, leaned against his aunt.
"This is the best Christmas I ever had," he said.
"Me, too," Patricia Garcia said.
It may be one of the more improbable of this season's Christmas stories, how these men — all of them addicts and convicts in a long-term treatment program — came to be called "angels" by a family that almost lost everything three months ago.
is a story, the men will tell you, of knowing what a big difference a little help can make, of understanding what it's like to give, of appreciating the power of grace. "I was so graciously lucky"
Paul Thompson was an addict for about 20 years before he stood before a judge one day in 1989, convicted of selling heroin.
He had heard of Peer I, a community corrections program affiliated with the University of Colorado Denver. He didn't think there was a chance the judge would send him there.
But the judge who had heard his case from the beginning was sick that day, and a retired judge took his place. She thought Thompson should get a shot.
Twenty-two years later, Thompson is still at Peer I. Only now, a room that used to be his bedroom is his office — and Thompson, 57, is the assistant director.
"I was so graciously lucky to be sentenced here," he said last week. "I grew up here. . . . Now I get to sit down with these guys and say, 'Let me tell you a story.' "
Mom talking to him again
Over and over, the men at Peer I say how lucky they are to be there, even with the highly structured schedule, strict rules and intense treatment.
Jason Worysz, 34, was using drugs by age 12 and left home by 15. A few years ago, he overdosed on heroin on Denver's 16th Street Mall and woke up three days later in the hospital. Within an hour of being released, he was popping pills. That same night, he was doing heroin again.
"I knew I was pretty sick," Worysz said. "I was the guy who people say, 'I never want to be that guy.' "
Nearly 14 months after getting to Peer I, Worysz is in the process of having tattoos removed and rebuilding relationships with his kids. Somehow, his mom has started talking to him again.
Addict given another chance
Mike Mills, 66, was a heroin addict most his life. He was in the state prison in Sterling — most of his old partners in crime long gone — when the powers that be gave him another chance.
Mills arrived at Peer I in January 2010, got off parole last week and is now a "senior client," serving as a liaison between staff and newer residents.
"The people here, they saved our lives," Mills said. "How do you tell somebody 'Thank you' for saving your life and giving you a life you never had?"
Their answer: You help someone else.
Each year, the men at Peer I participate in the AIDS Walk and Coats for Kids. Last week they went to the Denver Rescue Mission and handed out 200 burritos and hot chocolate. Worysz dressed up like Santa.
When they decided to adopt a family, Thompson called Denver police Sgt. Virginia Quiñones and asked if she knew of anyone who needed help. Technician Robert Martinez, a Marine who volunteers with Toys4Tots and works in the Garcias' neighborhood, had her answer.
Kids weren't expecting much
In September, a candle Patricia Garcia had left burning started a fire in the Denver family's home while they slept. Her husband, Julio, broke windows in an attempt to rescue Patricia and her children, Diana, 16, and Juan, 7. At one point, he grabbed a garden hose to try to put out the blaze.
Firefighters had to perform CPR to revive Patricia and Juan. They survived but spent several weeks in the hospital. Juan suffered third-degree burns on his stomach, chest and face.
Lacking home insurance and out of a job, Patricia took her family and moved in with her niece's family. For the past few months, all nine of them — four adults and five kids — have shared a three-bedroom house.
Money was tight, so the adults warned the kids not to expect much this holiday season.
Tears of joy all around
In preparation for Saturday, the Peer I clients contributed what they could. A handful of change. The last $13 one man had until payday. All told, more than 100 presents — toys, bikes, clothes and groceries bought with gift cards Walmart gave the men, as well as gifts from their own families — were delivered to the Garcias. The Denver police gang unit and Toys4Tots also contributed.
As the men unloaded all the gifts at the Garcias' home, Patricia and Julio stood by — stunned and crying. The children squealed and took turns hugging Santa. Some of the Peer I clients wiped their eyes.
"So many angels in one place," Patricia said as she hugged one of the men.
"These guys used to do bad things, but they're not bad people," Thompson said.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
The Denver Post