Cassandra Olivencia was scared the first time she walked in the door.
Years of using heroin and crack had worn down on her. Olivencia was ready to stay sober this time.
Walking into Everyday Miracles was almost like the first day of school.
“It was intimidating walking in the first day,” Olivencia recalled Monday.
A purple awning hangs over the entry to Everyday Miracles on Pleasant Street in Worcester. It’s inside this peer recovery support center that Olivencia propelled herself through a rapid change.
Olivencia, a 31-year-old born and raised in Worcester, got out of treatment, and like many in recovery felt a sense of loss. She didn’t know what to do with her life.
At Everyday Miracles, Olivencia says she found purpose.
“This place like really, it saved me. It did,” she said. “It gave me something to do.”
Olivencia speaks confidently about her skills and life goals. She dresses professionally, with a crisp white shirt and patterned shawl, and carries herself with poise. In group sessions, she guides conversation carefully like a natural-born leader.
She fills Monday through Friday with volunteer work at Everyday Miracles. And the program has paid off: In September, Olivencia starts college courses and a part-time job.
With a clean date of March 8, only a few months ago, Olivencia exemplifies the success people in Worcester can find through peer recovery.
“I’ve come very far in a small amount of time but I’ve worked very hard,” she reflects.
‘Hopeless’ years struggling with drugs
Olivencia started taking pills in her early 20s. By 25, she was taking heavy drugs like heroin and crack, she said.
Substance abuse led to court cases and jail.
“I was hopeless for a long time,” she said. “I just snapped out of it one day and I was just so tired of being on the streets and just being around people that didn’t care about me and always having to get money one way or another and it’s tiring. It’s very tiring.”
Olivencia’s sons — who are now 11 and 8 years old — were taken from her in 2016 and put up for adoption.
“After losing the kids I didn’t feel there was any use for my life. I didn’t really know how to live without them for a long time,“ she said. “At the end of the day, I just want to be ready whenever they do come back in my life, be in a better place.”
Like most, Olivencia’s road to recovery included hiccups. There were a few rounds of detox. A bit of clean time marred by a three-day relapse. But eventually, it stuck.
Olivencia went to Community Healthlink detox, the Passages rehab program, and an intensive outpatient program at AdCare.
Then she landed at Everyday Miracles.
“It’s scary to come into recovery because you have known that way of life for so long,” Olivencia recalls. “The disease, it has you lying to yourself, literally. I told myself for a long time that my family didn’t care about me, nobody cares about me, I’m out here by myself but it was all part of my disease. They were there the whole time. They were reaching out. I just wasn’t seeing it. I was too caught up.”
After starting coming to Everyday Miracles daily in April, Olivencia was offered more responsibility. She works the front desk, puts together the calendar and co-facilitates group sessions.
The volunteer work keeps Olivencia busy. Boredom, she says, is one of her triggers.
With Olivencia sitting at the front desk Monday, a man wearing a red shirt walks in and pauses. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says.
Most everyone who comes inside smiles up seeing Olivencia at the door. They want to know if she’ll be at upcoming events, like the Sober in the Sun camping and music festival.
She’s become a fixture at Everyday Miracles.
Her dedication to recovery has led to achievement. On Sept. 4, Olivencia is starting classes at Quinsigamond Community College, studying human services. She’ll also start a part-time job at Jana’s Place — a new recovery home for women exiting prostitution and recovering from substance use disorder with co-occurring mental health disorders — which was created by the Worcester survivor-run organization LIFT, or Living in Freedom Together.
In group sessions, a clear leader
With about seven people in recovery speaking with her and other co-facilitators on Monday, Olivencia steered the group discussion. The group looked at how music, television and movies they consume shapes their values.
Olivencia recalled listening to “gangsta” music when she was still using.
“I don’t really care for that today,” she shared with the group, remarking that now as a person in recovery, she enjoys R&B and some Christian music, as well as reading books by James Patterson and watching Grey’s Anatomy, a reminder of her time working in the medical field.
It took a couple of months for Olivencia to go from a member of those group sessions to a leader.
The fear of relapse is still in the back of her mind.
“Right now, I feel like it’s nowhere in sight,” she said. “But I have to keep up front that it’s always a possibility. I can’t be naive to that fact. Unfortunately, I’m an addict and I will live with this for the rest of my life. It’s about learning how to deal with it.”
Olivencia doesn’t think she could have come this far without the kind of help offered at Everyday Miracles. She tells as many people as she can about the services, which she finds even more helpful than 12-step programs.
“This place definitely has molded who I am today. It’s helped me build my confidence, my self-esteem, its opened so many doors for me,” she said. “This place changed my life.”
Right now, Olivencia is confident and excited. She said that recently, a probation officer told her, “at the rate you’re going, I can’t wait until we work together professionally.”
And next week, another first day of school. Another chance to shine.
A future of promise
Getting clean was rife with struggles — breaking old habits, cutting ties with bad influences, learning how to say no when things are too overwhelming, trying to repair relationships with her children, friends and family.
But one part proved most difficult for Olivencia.
“The hardest part for me was getting to know myself,” she said.
So how would Olivencia describe herself now?
“I’m a very loving, compassionate person,” she says with a smile, sitting proudly at the front desk at Everyday Miracles. “I’m very determined to make a difference, help people that are like me, that have been in my shoes and feel that hopelessness.
“I would definitely say I’m very strong-willed. I’ve been through a lot but I’m ready to move forward.”