By Tammy Ayer / Yakima Herald-Republic
YAKIMA — Jeanette Vargas was pregnant and so cold in the dilapidated house where she lived one winter that she broke into the empty apartment upstairs, pulled down the cupboards and burned them in her fireplace.
It was late 1990. Utterly lost and addicted to drugs, she was living in a single-family home turned into a triplex in Yakima. There was no power, no utilities of any kind. The upstairs tenants had fled when the ceiling collapsed.
“I was freezing in there,” Vargas said. “I was there by myself. This guy that I was kind of being with, he rented the house and then he abandoned me there. … It was awful.”
Cockroaches scuttled across the walls and inside the empty refrigerator.
Life seemed particularly hopeless that holiday season. There seemed to be no way out. But with the help of others who believed in her, Vargas conquered drug and alcohol addiction, got off the streets and volunteers as an advocate, educator, outreach worker and sponsor.
This holiday season, Vargas is working on her 26th year of sobriety. She lives in Moxee with her 9-year-old granddaughter, whom she adopted as a baby, and her dog. They are celebrating Christmas with extended family at her parents’ house nearby.
Sober since May 31, 1992, Vargas volunteers with the Yakima Housing Authority, Yakima Health District and Yakima Homeless Coalition, to name just a few. Her passion caught the eye of Molina Healthcare of Washington, which recently honored her with a Community Champions Award for her efforts to encourage others facing similar challenges.
“She has used the tremendous challenges she faced in her own life to inspire and encourage others to turn their lives around,” said Peter Adler, president of Molina Healthcare, which provides government-funded care for low-income individuals.
Vargas is frank about her life experiences. She will tell you she nearly died several times. She will say she wanted to die other times. But most often she’ll mention Linda Dennis, the woman she credits for saving her life by never giving up on her.
Although Vargas lost touch with Dennis about 15 years ago, she has never forgotten. Without her, “I’d be dead. I know I’d be dead,” Vargas said.
“I see the stuff that’s out there now; I know I’d be dead.”
Derailed by abuse
Her life began just like many others. Growing up in Yakima, Vargas loved her family, attended school faithfully, got good grades. She made the honor roll at East Valley High School.
“I grew up in a good home where bad things happened to me. … I was abused by a friend of the family,” Vargas said. “Back then, nobody talked about abuse or anything like that.
“I ended up turning to drugs at a young age and going in and out of the home, and my parents always trying to get me to come home and change,” Vargas said.
Convinced that no one cared, Vargas escaped the abuse by running away from home when she was 12.
“My mom tried everything to get (me) to come home, but once I took the first drug I did, nothing else mattered. Nothing mattered except for the next hit,” she said. “Pretty soon it becomes a physical addiction.”
When she became pregnant as a junior, Vargas left school. Others took responsibility for her son as her self-destructive spiral continued.
“A lot of times you want to change but you don’t know how. I always knew I wanted to be a better person, but once you’re addicted, it seems like there’s no way out, and I didn’t know anybody who knew a way out,” she said.
Brutally attacked in the late 1980s, Vargas was hospitalized. As she lay in her bed, she heard nurses talking about her, saying how she would never change. “You end up thinking, ‘I don’t deserve anything else than what’s happening to me.’ You get that mentality.”
When she returned to the streets, Vargas became pregnant with her daughter.
“I was strung out; I used through my whole pregnancy. I wanted to stop but didn’t know how,” she said. “I ended up going to the hospital because I had overdosed on pills. I was trying to kick heroin; I ended up overdosing on Valium.”
A kindly nurse told Vargas about a detox program. Vargas decided to pursue it, knowing she had nothing to lose.
“I went into cardiac arrest during detox. They sent me back to hospital … they put me on methadone. As soon as they put me on that, I disconnected myself and left the hospital. I went back to the streets,” Vargas said.
Despondent, she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on heroin and cocaine.
“They pronounced me dead on arrival but revived me,” Vargas said. “I came to seven days later. After that (Dennis) was still there. She took her vacation and stayed there with me the whole time.”
That’s when her life really changed, Vargas said.
Dennis got Vargas into a treatment program; she relapsed after four months. But Dennis didn’t give up. She helped Vargas into a long-term treatment program. And that’s when, inspired by Dennis, Vargas found her purpose.
“She got me. Instead of just saying, ‘She’s in a good place now’ and leave me, she said, ‘Why don’t you give back? That’s why I’ve always been here for you.’ She was a recovering heroin addict. I thought I could do the same thing.”
A chance to help others
Dennis got Vargas involved with the Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center in 1992. She started working with youth, telling her story and mentoring girls when they were released.
Vargas began speaking at area high schools, starting with Eisenhower in Yakima.
“It was the scariest thing I ever did in my whole life,” she said. “People came up to me afterward and said, ‘Wow, there is hope.’”
She spoke to students at every high school in Yakima County, especially enjoying her work with the alternative schools “because I could relate to a lot of those kids there,” she said.
Vargas began volunteering with inpatient treatment centers. But she also wanted to be the person helping out on the streets, just as Dennis did for her.
She helped out with needle exchanges. She connected with local organizations to provide resources to those on the streets. She got involved with state organizations.
And every Friday, she counsels a group of female patients at Triumph Treatment Services. She likes supporting them and offering guidance because it also “keeps it real for me,” Vargas said.
“If I go down there, it reminds me where I can go if I don’t live right today. I give back because I want to keep what I have (and) I want them to have that hope; give them the hope (Dennis) gave me.”
Rosie Rask of Yakima is among about 30 women whom Vargas sponsors in their efforts to become and stay sober. She’s sponsored some for years but began sponsoring Rask less than a week ago.
“I’m just grateful that Jeanette was willing to be my sponsor,” Rask said. “She’s there for a lot of people.”
The award from Molina Healthcare in October surprised her, Vargas said. She accepted the honor at the Renton Pavilion in Renton.
“It’s humbling. It’s really humbling. I was in tears. I really didn’t think I was worthy,” she said. “We got to this big place where all these people are dressed nice and I just felt out of place.
Vargas still occasionally wonders if she’s making a difference.
“But then I see people becoming citizens in the community and becoming their own important people in what they do and I think, ‘Yeah, I am. I am making a difference,” she said.
“I believe God gave me a second chance, so I’ve got to give back what was given to me.”