EVERETT — Jennifer Cunningham has a vision for drug curriculum in public schools.
“Do you remember the D.A.R.E. program?” she said. “Well, it’s not going to be like D.A.R.E. Because honestly, that program scared the (expletive) out of me in elementary school.”
When her teacher in Las Vegas brought in police officers to teach about drugs, Cunningham was terrified. Her parents were struggling with addiction. She thought they’d be hauled off to jail if she told anyone.
So Cunningham didn’t speak up. She dropped out of school in seventh grade, and started using meth on her 13th birthday.
She doesn’t want kids to feel the way she did. Schools, she said, should “let kids know it’s okay, you’re not going to be taken away.”
“But if you’re having trouble at home, let us know so we can get help to your family and so you guys can stay together,” she said. “Because that’s the biggest fear as a kid.”
After two decades fighting meth, heroin and painkiller addictions, Cunningham is five years sober and going back to school.
She just graduated from Edmonds College with two certificates and two associate degrees. She just started a bachelor’s in child, youth and family services.
“And who knows,” Cunningham said, “I may go on to take my master’s after this.”
Cunningham celebrated her graduation last month at the Second Chance Foundation’s recovery house in Everett. Balloons and streamers wrapped around shelves stocked with 12-step recovery pamphlets. The nonprofit gives out scholarships to students who have struggled with addiction, incarceration or homelessness.
She was joined by friends and fellow Edmonds grads Dana Gibson and Philicia Jenny.
“We have both the lived experience and the college degrees,” he told them. “And it’s priceless.”
After the help of the Second Chance Foundation, Cunningham, Gibson and Jenny are now working to help people get sober and stable.
Cunningham works at Everett’s Recovery Cafe, practicing “radical hospitality.” Gibson helps get families into permanent supportive housing at the YWCA. Jenny does outreach on the streets she used to use drugs on, and is starting a new job soon at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.
All three women leaned on each other in their recovery journeys. Cunningham and Jenny lived in sober transitional housing together years ago. For Cunningham, being surrounded by other women and mothers fighting addiction was a huge deal.
“I can still say to this day, heroin has been the love of my life. And that’s sad. That’s disgusting. But it’s the truth … it feels like home, which is the scariest thing in the world,” Cunningham said. “Knowing that I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t a piece of (expletive) for feeling the way I did, something in me just clicked.”
She went back to school in 2018. Jenny followed in her footsteps.
“Which feels really good leading the way for other women, to know that they can do it too,” Cunningham said. “Like, if we can stop using heroin we can freaking do anything.”
Homeless locals know Jenny as someone they can rely on for a meal.
While at Edmonds College — where she just graduated with a perfect 4.0 — she started up The Block 128th. The grassroots group is run largely by formerly incarcerated people and folks in recovery. They bring meals, clothes and resources to the streets of Everett. It started with just a few volunteers, Jenny said.
“We’d just go out there and let people use our phones,” she said. “That was a big thing. Going out there and saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you call your mom?’”
The Block 128th has since grown to about 27 volunteers. They hope to help people navigate housing resources, Child Protective Services, courts and addiction services. Jenny said the group would’ve been helpful back when she was bouncing between county jails.
“There was nobody out there doing outreach on the streets who told me ‘maybe you should try something different,’” Jenny said at her graduation party. “The only people who told me that was law enforcement, but it was entirely shame-based, which didn’t help.”
Jenny left school in eighth grade, later earning her GED in prison. When the state’s Child Protective Services took her baby away, she was “full of rage,” she said.
Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant again. She didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl.
“I didn’t care. I never saw a doctor. I was in and out of jail,” she said.
Jenny gestured to her young daughter at the graduation party, with her same curly hair. The pregnancy helped her get sober.
“I felt my child move,” she recalled. “I was just shocked. I was like, ‘How is this thing still alive?’ I was trying anything I could to destroy my life, myself and my baby. And my baby was still there.”
Education has been a game-changer for Jenny. She took classes on addiction and brain development. She learned how addiction stems from trauma.
Just like she followed in Cunningham’s footsteps, Gibson followed in hers.
“If I wouldn’t had met Philicia, I don’t know where I’d be today,” Gibson said. “I look at Philicia and I’m like, ‘Dangit, man.’”
Gibson dropped out of high school at 16, later getting hooked on meth and suffering from severe psychosis. Now sober, she just graduated with an associate degree from Edmonds College. She’s working toward a bachelor’s in child, youth and family services. She said more outreach like Jenny’s would’ve been helpful for her back when she was on the streets.
Cheering the loudest at the grad party was Kyle Von Stroberg, who started the scholarship program in 2016. He had the idea while studying marine maintenance technology at Skagit Valley College. He had just gotten out of jail and was sleeping in a parking garage. He said there weren’t many resources for students like him.
“You’re set up for failure,” he said.
So Von Stroberg built the S.S. Second Chance, a 12-foot lapstrake skiff, and auctioned it off to raise money for the scholarship. Soon after, he and Cockburn grew the scholarship program into the Second Chance Foundation. Each year, students at Edmonds, Skagit and Everett Community colleges are eligible for funding.
“It’s only fair that every college has a support system for people coming out of jail,” Von Stroberg said. “It’s only fair.”