Sunday, May 08, 2011
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Five mothering lessons from Roanoke's patron saint of addicts

Maria Jordan, a recovering addict who works as a Roanoke Rescue Mission recovery coach, has opened her home in southeast Roanoke to many strays, including Daye Henderlite (right) and Jordan's nephew, 4-year-old Davan McGillin.

Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

Maria Jordan, a recovering addict who works as a Roanoke Rescue Mission recovery coach, has opened her home in southeast Roanoke to many strays, including Daye Henderlite (right) and Jordan's nephew, 4-year-old Davan McGillin. "She's teaching me how to be a mother," Henderlite says.

Maria Jordan walks Mariah Reaves, 9, to her recent drum lesson. Jordan has raised Mariah and several of the girl's relatives to keep them out of foster care.

Maria Jordan walks Mariah Reaves, 9, to her recent drum lesson. Jordan has raised Mariah and several of the girl's relatives to keep them out of foster care.

Recovering addict Maria Jordan has opened her home to many addicts and their children, caring for a dozen children in the past two decades. Ma'Leigha Meadows (center), 2, is one of two children she's currently raising for friends. Ma'Leigha brushes Jordan's hair while Jordan's niece, Kyleigh Weaver, 2, waits her turn.

Photos by SAM DEAN The Roanoke Times

Recovering addict Maria Jordan has opened her home to many addicts and their children, caring for a dozen children in the past two decades. Ma'Leigha Meadows (center), 2, is one of two children she's currently raising for friends. Ma'Leigha brushes Jordan's hair while Jordan's niece, Kyleigh Weaver, 2, waits her turn.

Recovery coach Maria Jordan interviews Phillip Shell, who recently entered the Rescue Mission's recovery program.

Recovery coach Maria Jordan interviews Phillip Shell, who recently entered the Rescue Mission's recovery program. "She sees right through you," said Mark Walsh, who completed the program more than three years ago and is now assistant pastor at Clearview Church.

Maria Jordan, a recovering addict who works as a Roanoke Rescue Mission recovery coach, has opened her home in southeast Roanoke to many strays, including Daye Henderlite (right) and Jordan's nephew, 4-year-old Devan McGillin.

Photos by SAM DEAN The Roanoke Times

Maria Jordan, a recovering addict who works as a Roanoke Rescue Mission recovery coach, has opened her home in southeast Roanoke to many strays, including Daye Henderlite (right) and Jordan's nephew, 4-year-old Devan McGillin. "She's teaching me how to be a mother," Henderlite says.

Daye Henderlite won a scholarship to Virginia Western Community College after writing an essay about her mentor, Maria Jordan, with whom she's lived on several occasions.

Daye Henderlite won a scholarship to Virginia Western Community College after writing an essay about her mentor, Maria Jordan, with whom she's lived on several occasions. "She taught me how to be a productive member of society," Henderlite wrote.

Though she has no children of her own, Maria Jordan (right) has mothered many, like Mariah Reeves, with whom Jordan attends a recent drum practice. Jordan says she refuses to apply for assistance in order to keep the children's parents from having to pay child support.

Though she has no children of her own, Maria Jordan (right) has mothered many, like Mariah Reeves, with whom Jordan attends a recent drum practice. Jordan says she refuses to apply for assistance in order to keep the children's parents from having to pay child support.

This is motherhood lesson No. 1 from Roanoke's patron saint of addicts:

When your drug-addicted surrogate daughter begs you to bail her out of jail, ignore her tears and thrashing.

Just say no to her pleading eyes.

Tell her: If I do, you'll be dead within a week -- just another girl lying in another nasty motel room, a needle stuck in her arm.

Lesson No. 2: No one's a lost cause.

After her release from jail eight months down the road, after her latest sentence for forgery and theft -- offer her a bed in your house.

While you sleep on the couch.

Some people take in stray dogs and kittens. Maria Jordan, 54, takes in stray people.

And she mothers them -- hard -- in a style that is part drill sergeant and part Italian grandmother. (She makes a mean sausage cacciatore, and her macaroni and cheese is legend.)

At the Roanoke Rescue Mission, where she counsels the newly clean and sober, Jordan takes on the cases no other worker dares. That's how she met the jailed drug addict Daye Cooper Henderlite, 34, and, by and by, changed the course of her life.

Although she has borne no children of her own, Jordan's brand of tough love has filtered far beyond the Rescue Mission halls.

This is a story about a white woman called Big Momma by more than a dozen black, white and biracial people, young and old.

It's a story about raw and unconditional motherly love.

Lesson No. 3: Hold people accountable.

When Henderlite turned up at the Rescue Mission six years ago, she was homeless, husbandless and childless -- banned by a judge from seeing her four kids. There wasn't a drug she hadn't abused, from heroin and crack cocaine to Xanax and OxyContin.

There wasn't a thing she hadn't done in exchange for drugs. She was so desperately addicted to prescription painkillers that she talked more than one dentist into pulling her back teeth. Just for the pain pills.

"I've lived in crack houses," she said. "I've burned a lot of bridges in my life."

At the mission, she broke every rule on the books. She fraternized, which is mission-talk for sneaking off with men. She used drugs and alcohol blatantly, and lied to avoid doing work.

"You couldn't believe anything she said," Jordan recalled.

When she tried to cover up a dirty urine screen, Jordan sat her down and laid it out: "I can't prove you used, but you need to find a network to talk about it. If you keep at it with the secrets, you're going to keep getting high."

And if Henderlite kept getting high, she was going to end up exactly like two of her partners, four of her relatives and at least 10 friends: dead of a drug overdose.

At first she thought Jordan was being harsh, but eventually she came to realize: "She was the first person who acted like it wasn't about getting caught. She was the only person who seemed to love me unconditionally -- even when I called and told her I'd just gotten high."

Jordan warned her that she needed to get clean before her kids graduated from high school and never spoke to her again. She took her to meetings and picked her up from crack houses, even after she'd been kicked out of the mission -- three times.

She made her get her own cellphone bill for the first time in her life, instead of mooching off someone else's account.

At a 12-step meeting 18 months ago, when Henderlite shrugged off picking up another white key tag -- the emblem of an addict's renewed quest to get clean -- Jordan made her reconsider.

"Take it because you never know," Jordan said. "Maybe this time it'll stick."

This time, after more than 20 failed attempts, it did.

For the first time in her adult life, Henderlite is living in her own apartment, paying her rent, going to college and trying to make things right with her kids, ages 8 to 15.

"I don't let go of people," Jordan said. "I don't think people are trash."

Veterans of the recovery program say Jordan has a rare ability to immediately detect an addict's excuse or half-truth.

"She sees right through you," said Mark Walsh, who completed the program more than three years ago and now is assistant pastor at Clearview Church, a storefront congregation on Tazewell Avenue Southeast.

It's why she often ends up coaching the mission's toughest clientele.

"She has no problem holding people accountable," said her boss, Kim Gembala, the mission's director of administration. "But she's not just about getting them through a hard time. She's about saving their lives."

Lesson No. 4: Delete the bad guys.

Jordan was a teenager when her own life spiraled out of control. Her mother had left, and her father placed the children in foster care. Originally from a large Italian Catholic family in Williamsport, Pa., she lost her virginity to a pimp at the age of 19. The drugs came next, to numb the shame of prostitution.

"Going to jail was the best thing that ever happened to me," she said of her 1997 conviction for crack distribution. She was in active residential treatment for a year, including six months in jail, followed by three years of probation.

Jordan credits Alpha, the Roanoke City Jail-based treatment program, and Hegira House (a treatment program that closed in 2007) with saving her life. That was 13 years ago.

Attending 12-step programs daily, Jordan began working in the Rescue Mission's kitchen in 2000, then progressed to a job in the thrift store and, eventually, to recovery coach.

Unable to have children of her own, she began taking in friends' children when their mothers went to jail for drug-related offenses, to keep them from going into foster care. She receives no government assistance for them and says she refuses to apply, because if she did, their biological parents -- who still struggle -- would have to pay child support. (She's been separated from her husband for seven years.)

Her cramped Southeast Roanoke home typically overflows with visiting relatives, children and various random strays. Many move on to a nearby rental apartment that friends refer to as "Big Momma's transition house," so she can still keep an eye on them.

She's had custody off and on of a dozen children over the past two decades and currently is raising 9-year-old Mariah Reaves and the girl's cousin, 2-year-old Ma'Leigha Meadows.

"Some people think it's too much for me to handle, being everyone's safety net," she said. "But I always wanted to know what my purpose to God was. And this is it.

"In some ways, it's like getting my family back."

Jordan also was raising 11-year-old Tyler Caldwell -- who was the mission's poster child, and his face still appears on the side of its trucks -- until his accidental death from hanging in 2009. "I'd had him seven and a half years," she said, adding that his goal for their family was to be featured on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Then, he reasoned, Big Momma could take in all the kids she wanted.

"He was my baby," Jordan said.

When Henderlite was released from jail that year, it was Tyler's room she ended up moving into, just a few weeks after the boy's death. How Jordan handled that tragedy was the subject of the essay that landed Henderlite a scholarship to Virginia Western Community College, where she is now a sophomore with a 3.5 GPA.

When Tyler died, Jordan reached out to her support network, attending three or four meetings a week, Henderlite recounted. "She even spoke publicly [in a 12-step meeting] about it the very next day.

"It showed me that all the stuff we complain about is truly irrelevant, that you can be grateful in any situation."

Jordan has taught her to earn her children's love and respect back by spending time with them, not buying them things. She made her delete all the bad influences in her life -- i.e., troublesome men -- from her cellphone contacts.

And when she was furious about wanting to see her children, Jordan coached her to tell her ex-husband: "I know I'm powerless here. I'll follow your lead and accept your decisions." She visits with the younger three on weekends and holidays now, with his permission, and sits with them every Sunday at church. The oldest, a teenager who lives with Henderlite's grandmother, sometimes stays at her house.

For Mother's Day, she said earlier this week, the kids were planning to bring her favorite treats: candles, pajama pants and chocolate-dipped strawberries.

"I have a long way to go to be the mother I want to be, but I'm so grateful to my ex-husband for having protected them from me at my worst," she said.

Lesson No. 5: Welcome the strays.

Christie Svirsky wasn't surprised when Henderlite walked into the psychology class she teaches at Virginia Western earlier this year. Earlier, Henderlite had been Svirsky's patient in a treatment program at Blue Ridge Recovery Center.

"She's always struck me as somebody who has that inner-core strength to say, 'This is my goal, and I'm going to reach it.' Part of that's native intelligence, and part is survival instinct," Svirsky said.

On a recent morning, Henderlite told the brief version of her story to her classmates, as a way of introducing a newspaper reporter and photographer who were sitting in. With tattoos running up and down her arms, shredded jeans and a newsboy cap perched on her head, she stood confidently and explained how it happened that a suicidal drug addict had made it this far.

The class applauded.

Her goal now is to get a degree, become a writer and earn enough so that her children can stay in their own bedrooms when they visit.

"I want to fix my daughter's hair, cook for the kids, just live my life. I want a leather office chair, shelves full of books, a cabinet full of groceries.

"I want to have nice teeth again."

Her dream is not unlike the reality she witnessed a few nights ago in Jordan's living room, as first one child, then another, then another rushed in to play with Jordan, hugging her and playing with her hair.

Henderlite quietly took in the tender scene. A friend in need had just moved out the weekend before, freeing up a bedroom for Jordan. But she declined the space, saying, "Nope, I like the couch."

After Tyler died, Jordan and Henderlite had planned to stencil Matthew 25:35 above his bedroom door, making it official quarters for the next newly sober stray:

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.

But life got busy and complicated, as it usually does. And the strays kept showing up at Jordan's door, as they usually do, and no Bible verse was necessary to mark the home of the patron saint of so many lost children and their moms.

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