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At Teen Challenge, addicts find a second chance

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Sean Merrill was a trained electrician, making a good living. He had a beloved daughter he’d fathered as a teenager. But at age 25, Merrill was introduced to oxycodone by his younger brother. “He called them ‘happy pills,’ and for the next 10 years I took them,” Merrill says.

Merrill lost his job and his electrician’s license. He lost his home. He lost visitation rights with his daughter. His wife filed for divorce. At one point, he overdosed on heroin. His brother called 911, and Merrill was revived with Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. Over the years, Merrill tried several treatment centers. But he continued to use.

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In 2011, his brother died from an overdose of heroin at age 23. “That was the turning point,” says Merrill, who grew up in Chelmsford. “When Corey died, I had to pick my mom off the ground. That’s what showed me what my addiction was doing.”

His mother encouraged him to speak to a Plymouth pastor, Neil Eaton, from New Hope Chapel. Eaton told Merrill about Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug treatment program. “It was life-changing for me,” Merrill says.

Founded in 1958, Teen Challenge soon began treating adults like Merrill. There are more than 250 Teen Challenge programs in the United States, more than 1,200 worldwide.

Merrill attended the 15-month residential program in Brockton, which is the New England headquarters, graduating in May 2015. He’s now an executive assistant there, overseeing drug awareness outreach. Though he wasn’t religious when he entered, he is now a firm believer in the teachings of Jesus.

“You can’t force anyone to be a believer,” says Merrill, 37. “We just ask you to be open to the idea.” The curriculum includes a Bible-reading segment.

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In Brockton, there are 82 beds for men; a Providence campus hosts women. Merrill describes the program as “12 steps on steroids.”

Participants pay $750 a month, but in 53 years, Brockton has never turned anyone away for lack of funds. While there, each participant donates time and skills. The Brockton center is about to finish an addition of 26 beds, bringing the total to 108, with labor provided by the men.

Because it is faith-based, Teen Challenge — whose graduates have ranged from 18 to 83 — receives no public funds. They hold fund-raisers and solicit money from private donors and churches. There are various pledge runs, and an annual golf tournament, the next one set for June 12 at Halifax Country Club.

Still, Merrill is upset that Governor Charlie Baker recently cut nearly $2 million for opioid abuse treatment throughout the state. In 2015, there were 1,531 reported deaths from opioid overdoses in Massachusetts, and Merrill says the numbers from 2016, as yet not finalized, were on the rise from the year before.

Merrill considers himself one of the lucky ones. He and his wife are together, and they have a 6-year-old son and recently bought a house in Duxbury. He’s got his electrician’s license back, but plans to keep working with Teen Challenge.

What motivates him are people like John, who started drinking booze and smoking weed as a preteen. With an unwed teenage mom who worked, John — who didn’t want to use his last name to shield family members — says he was constantly “dumped off” on others. “My mother did the best she could, but she was always out,” he says. “I didn’t know how to cope.”

As a teenager, he began selling weed and oxycodone to pay for his habit, which now included opioids. By 18, he was shooting heroin and spending $1,000 a week on drugs. His mother threw him out of the house. He joined the military and was still detoxing at boot camp.

“I was an athlete my entire life, so I was able to pass basic training,” John says. During two deployments to Iraq, he was sober. But he relapsed when he returned home.

His mother told him about Teen Challenge, and he went to Brockton. “I was tired,” says John, who is 28. “I’d been high for 12 years.”

He’s only been at Teen Challenge for two months, and says it was rough at first. ”I thought it was crock,” he says. “I had no [religious] faith. I had faith only that the drug dealer would show up at 5.”

But he has started reading the Bible and listening to the stories of the other men at the center. “My life started changing,” he says. He now works on the outreach team with Merrill and has a good relationship with his family.

What does he see in his future? “I don’t really think that far ahead,” John says. “But believe I’ll get that answer when I’m ready for it.”

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.



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