Taking Hope to the Streets
Featured Guest: Carol Rostucher
My guest today is Carol Rostucher, founder of the organization Angels in Motion, which began as she searched for her son who was living with addiction on the streets of Philadelphia. As her eyes were opened to the unique needs of the homeless population with substance use disorders, she set out to bring love and hope to them one by one, by offering everything from hugs and snacks to help navigating the process of getting an ID card. She sat down with me at the Innovations in Recovery conference in San Diego to explain how Angels in Motion has grown its reach across Philadelphia and to share how this mission has changed her and her relationship with her son.
David Condos: Hi, guys. Welcome to another episode of Recovery Unscripted, a podcast powered by Foundations Recovery Network. I’m David Condos. My guest today is Carol Rostucher, founder of the organization Angels in Motion which began as she searched for her son who was leaving with addiction on the streets of Philadelphia. As her eyes were opened to the unique needs of the homeless population with substance use disorders, she set out to bring love and a hope to them, one by one, by offering everything from hugs and snacks, to help navigating the process of getting an ID card.
She sat down with me at the Innovations in Recovery Conference in San Diego to explain how Angels in Motion has grown its reach across Philadelphia, and to share how this mission has changed her and her relationship with her son. Now, here is Carol.
I’m here with Carol Rostucher. Thank you so much for being with us.
Carol Rostucher: Thanks for having me.
David: All right. Well, first, let’s have you tell us a bit about your personal story and your background with addiction and recovery.
Carol: My son is in recovery right now. He has three years. He’s in Florida. I started working in the field through my son, having to look for him in the streets of Kensington and seeing the lost, homeless people down there. To me, it seemed like they were invisible to most of the world. There was one gentleman that stuck out in my mind. He’s always stood at the same spot. He never looked up. He held a sign on one hand and a cup on the other but no one ever talked to him. He never talked to anybody. I would go by and just stop and give him a happy meal. It took months for him just to start talking to me. I could see how isolation was feeding this disease and bringing them down deeper and deeper.
David: To back up a little of what started all of this, is that your son had an addiction and you went looking for him?
Carol: Yes. I would go down to Kensington and look for him. He–
David: This is a neighborhood in Philadelphia?
Carol: In Philadelphia, yes. It’s very well-known. Actually, it has the purest heroin on the East Coast. A lot of people travel there to get heroin. A lot of people in the surrounding counties come there to buy their drugs. My son was using. He got to the point where he lost everything. People always say rock bottom. I’d say I really don’t think there is one. I think there’s a trap door at every rock bottom. Now eventually, you fall lower, even though you think you can’t.
He had a choice to enter recovery or leave my home. He chose to leave the home. He lived in the streets. I would go looking for him just to let him know that I still loved him. Therefore, if he wanted help– Now I wanted to make sure he was eating sometimes because he was homeless and that wasn’t his thing. His worry was where’s his next bag coming from so he’s not sick.
David: Even though you had to set that ultimatum which, I think, everyone agrees is a healthy thing. It comes to that sometimes. You were still his mom. You still wanted to go make sure he was eating to get lunch.
Carol: I say through his addiction, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about me, become the person I am today. It also taught me on conditional love. No matter what, that is my child. I will love him unconditionally.
David: As you were out in this Kensington area looking for your son and bringing him food, stuff like that, what else did you see going on there that spurred some of the action that you’ve taken since then?
Carol: There is just so many individuals there living homeless on the streets. As you speak with them and talk with them, you can see. If you look them in the eyes, which most people don’t, that connection right there means so much to them. I’m a hugger, so I give them hugs. That human touch, I can’t tell you how many people just broke down- grown men, old men- broke down in my arms crying because they haven’t been touched for years.
They’re like, “I smell.” I’m like, “I don’t care. I can shower. It’s not a big deal.” They’re human beings but no one’s treating them that way. They’re not looking at them that way. Even with their disease, everyone’s still looking at the disease, looking at the problems. How do we just start with human compassion? Hug them, love them, look them in the eyes, and listen. Listen is a big thing.
David: Yes, I know. That’s something that we’ve talked about before on the podcast. It can be easy and convenient to view addiction and people with addiction and also homeless people as this other population and just be, “Hands off,” and think of it in that way. That’s awesome that you were able to make that connection. Like you said, really, they haven’t maybe had a hug in a long time. You don’t know what a person’s story is until you get to know them.
Carol: Exactly. The judgment that people have is- it’s unbelievable. The stories that I hear that my people tell me, it’s things I couldn’t even fathom ever happening in a lifetime. They’re living this. Then people want to say, “Well, they’re using drugs.” They’re using drugs because they’re trying to forget something horrific that happened. You don’t know, so stop judging and just love them.
David: As part of how you’re serving this community, you started to give out blessing bags?
David: Could you tell us about that, why you started to do that and what that entails?
Carol: I am not a rich person. Going down and meeting these people and seeing they’re hungry, I see my own son going to trash can for food. I don’t want to ever see that. I don’t want to see any human being not have food. Through going and visiting him, he would always ask for the same things- pop tarts, chips, pretzels, a juice, something to drink, and then other snacks we put in. Always non-perishable.
My thing is, when you give somebody this, they might be dope sick. They might need to go get well. They’re not going to eat it right then and there, but they can put it in their backpack and they can eat it later. If they forget about it in three days, they can still eat it. They’re not going to get sick. We also put a resource flier in there. Our phone numbers on there. We also have the local detoxing treatment centers on the back, so they can call. Then also, a list of all our services.
We have- it’s so cute. School kids make notes up, encouraging little notes for them. They draw on them and color them. They mean more to them than anybody could ever imagine. My vehicle [unintelligible 00:06:26] has one that somebody left underneath my windshield facing me. They are good people. They want to show me that they appreciate what I do. It says you matter and it’s Snoopy. I love Snoopy and it face [sic] me. I walked out to my car one day and there it was. I know a little kid drew it. It was in a blessing bag with somebody left it for me.
David: This eventually grew into Angels in Motion. Could you tell us about how that came to be?
Carol: I was going out doing this by myself, and then a woman, Barbara Laker, from the Philadelphia Daily News had contacted me and asked me if she could do a story on what I’m doing about my son and the struggles and everything. I thought about them. I thought I came out on Facebook a year or two prior, saying, “My son has a heroin addiction. I don’t want anybody’s pity. Please don’t call him a junky because he’s not. He’s a human being. I just need some prayers for him.” I went on to find his way.
When I did that, my messenger in Facebook, I must’ve had 20 different people that I know- I know there were kids- that were saying, “Oh my God, so does my child. Oh my God.” I’m thinking, “So are these people.” Parents, loved ones, family members, friends, they have this- and nobody is talking about it. Something’s got to change here. Nothing’s going to change if something doesn’t change.
When Barbara asked me, I said, “You know what? Yes, I do want to do a story.” This way, we can open it up to the world and let people know it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent because your child has an addiction. It doesn’t mean that you’re a horrible wife if your husband has an addiction. When she asked me, I said yes. She did the article. Through that, I had so many people want to volunteer and help that I just started the Angels in Motion.
David: I guess, how would you sum up the mission of Angels in Motion today?
Carol: Angels in Motion is changing the way that someone suffering with the disease of addiction is treated. One life at a time. That’s our mission statement.
David: Are the blessing bags still a big part of that? What do you do on a daily basis working with that?
Carol: Daily basis, I have, probably, anywhere from 60 to 100 blessing bags in my car every day. In between taking them to appointments, doing recovery plans with them, I’m also a certified recovery specialist. In between all that, I hit the streets every day and give out blessing bags and talk to people. Those blessing bags are the way the communication opens. A lot of people have trust issues, including myself. I have trust issues too. You have to build that relationship. If we can even help discuss anything with you, even if it’s medical help. I have gentlemen out there and women who need medical health for their wounds.
David: You said a news article helped spread the word. You got a lot of people wanting to volunteer. Are a lot of the other people who volunteer- are they people who have someone, a loved one in their life who’s dealing with addiction as well, like you? Who are the other people that are involved?
Carol: Yes. There’s also people in recovery. We have a sleeping mat project where they make sleeping mats for the homeless so they’re not sleeping on the cold ground when they’re outside. They’re made from shopping bags. [unintelligible 00:09:23] and we’re going to loom them together. The woman that runs that doesn’t even have addiction on her family. She just wanted to help. She’s seen a need?
David: So you do that. Blessing bags, you do transportation, you said, taking them to appointments.
David: And, yes, there are sleeping mats. Man. You’re really meeting some important needs.
Carol: Yes. We help them with their ID’s. In Philadelphia, it’s hard to get treatment without an ID. You can’t even get an outpatient without an ID. We supply IDs. We’ll take them to get them. If we can’t take them to get them, we will go [unintelligible 00:09:52] to get there and get back. We help them get on programs. We help them get insurance. There’s a lot of roadblocks and obstacles for someone to get into treatment.
Majority of society doesn’t see that. They just think it’s that easy- “I want help,” and go get help, which it should be because when you talk about other medical conditions, you go in and you say you want help and you get it, but not with addiction.
David: Especially, looking at it- or you have to go all the way down to the foundation if they need an ID or they need transportation. They need somebody to help remind them that your appointment is at this time. It’s easy for a lot of people to think it’s just a decision, you go to seek help, but– I have an ID already. It’s easy for me to say, but there’s a lot of roadblocks.
Carol: There are. There are a lot of roadblocks, a lot of obstacles, a lot of things that people don’t even realize are necessary. To say you never had an ID in the state of Pennsylvania– Well, then you have to have your social security card and your birth certificate. Well, if you’re homeless, you don’t have either those things. More than likely, you’ve lost them already. Then you have to start that process. If you go to get your birth certificate like, “I will.” You have to have an ID, get your birth certificate [laughs]. It’s like a crazy circle. It’s a vicious circle that they need guidance through. They do.
David: What are some other challenges or barriers that you see working with that population?
Carol: The treatment centers themselves. Some of the clinicians and the doctors, they’re horrendous, the way they talk to people. To me, if you can’t be empathetic and you can’t be understanding and you can’t be non-judgmental, you really shouldn’t be in this field. Now, that’s a huge obstacle. I’ve already walked somebody in to get an assessment and the person behind the desk wasn’t even [unintelligible 00:11:28]. The person behind the desk was so rude. By the time we sat down, he looked at me and he’s like, “I don’t want to be here.” I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have to go somewhere else because I could tell this wasn’t going to work. I could just tell you also have mental health issues.”
My point is, you don’t know who you’re dealing with. You don’t know what this person’s problems are and you’re going to come off rude and ignorant and snappy and judgmental to this person who also- yes, they have addiction but they also have mental health issues. You just put them to the point where they don’t trust anybody in that place because of your attitude when they walked in.
David: How else does Angels in Motion hope to educate and mobilize the surrounding community? Because a lot of it is spreading knowledge, getting rid of misunderstandings, that kind of thing.
Carol: Council people asked me if I’ll testify. I do and speak on behalf of those in active addiction. We also go to schools. We speak to a lot of grade schools students. We do it by classroom, going to discuss addiction with them and answer their questions honestly. I tell them all the time, “I’m not here to make you afraid. I’m not here to try and scare you,” because, honestly, things like that when I was growing up entice me. I don’t know about everybody else, but you put that fear factor out there. I was like, “I’m going to try that.”
I speak to them honestly. I actually tell them what addiction takes from you. Through my son, I’ve seen he lost everything. That impacts them because they’re seeing this. They’re seeing what’s going on and they have the hugest hearts. These kids, they’re going to change this. They are going to be the change that we need. They’re going to stop the stigma.
David: Looking at, as an overview, what has this experience taught you?
Carol: It’s amazing. I don’t wish substance use disorder on anyone in this world, but I have to say, my son’s substance use disorder has taught me everything in life that matters to me. I’m a very non-judgmental person. I try my best. If I start to think judgmentally about someone, I’m like, “Stop. You don’t know their situation. You don’t know what happened.” Like I said, unconditional love. It’s taught me unconditional love.
It’s taught me how to actually listen to someone. Listen to hear and not to respond, to actually really sit and listen and hear what they’re saying and then ask them, “Well, how do you think we should start this? What do you think will be the first thing you’d like to start in this process, on this road?” It doesn’t necessarily have to do with treatment. It might just be like they just want to start organizing their own life. They ask their opinion, what they feel would help them. It’s taught me a lot. I actually love myself now. That’s what it taught me, how to love myself.
David: It’s funny how things can come around to have effects that you may not have thought.
Carol: I’d never thought this in the beginning. Never.
David: For other parents out there who might have an addicted child, addicted loved one, and maybe don’t know what to do, what would be your message to them?
Carol: Listen to them. Honestly, listen and ask their opinion. Ask them how they feel. You could help them. In the beginning, it’s hard because– I always say this to everyone. When you’re a parent, you think you can fix all their problems. When I found out my son was doing heroin, my first thought was, “I got to fix this. I love this boy. I can’t lose him.” Then I realized, “Wait, I can’t fix this. I need a whole tribe. I need a village to help me help him.”
You just have to reach out to other people and let them know you’re going through this and ask their opinion. Each child is different, each individual is different. Everybody with substance use disorder is different. You just have to realize that you know your child better than anybody else. Sit and listen to them. Listen and hear what they’re saying.
David: Like you were saying earlier, everyone is going to have different goals too. You really have to ask them like, “Where do you want to be?”
Carol: Right. It’s hard for a parent to accept your child, where they are. That’s a hard thing to do, like accepting my child in active addiction, which I did. I accepted him in active addiction. I knew that’s where he was at. I knew he didn’t want help. He told me straight out he didn’t. I accepted him and loved him, but I did give him a decision, “If you want to end in recovery, you’re welcome here. If not, you can’t stay here.” You got to set your boundaries too for your own stakes, being your own peace of mind.
David: Here at the conference. I know you also just receive the Heroes Award presented by Heroes in Recovery, which is a [sic] organization that we talked about pretty frequently here on the podcast. How did you get connected with them and end up coming out here to San Diego?
Carol: Quite a few years back. I had a rally up in Harrisburg. I asked David Humes to come and speak at the rally. He did. I also asked my son who was in active addiction to come and he’s like, “No, I’m not going to go.” I was like, “Listen, just come with me. You might get something little from somebody. Just come. I’m not asking you not to use. I’m not asking any of them. I’m just asking you to come and just listen.” He did. He end up coming. Him and Dave actually just wandered off and sat and talked for a long time. He was probably one of the first people that touched my son and actually had my son to start thinking that recovery is a possibility.
David: Then Dave, of course, was a previous recipient of the Heroes Award, and then connected you with them?
Carol: Yes. He actually nominated me for the award they did.
David: Cool. Being a volunteer organization, I assume Angels in Motion depends a lot on new volunteers and people who are wanting to support it. If there’s someone, maybe they’re in Philadelphia or they’re not, who’s interested in finding out more and potentially supporting it, where can they go to find out more?
Carol: They could e-mail me at email@example.com.
David: All right. Well, you’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to this mission, this cause of recovery, over the last several years. Obviously, it has a really important place in your life. To wrap up here, could you sum up why bringing hope to those with addiction, right where they are, why that mission is so important to you?
Carol: I guess because for going out there, I’ve met so many people. I’ve lost so many people. I love them all. I say this all the time. People laugh at me. They are my children. They really are. They’re wonderful human beings with huge hearts who are lost, misunderstood, confused, going through trauma, trying to forget things that happened to them. They just need somebody to love them.
David: All right. Well, Carol, thank you so much for being with us today.
Carol: Thank you.
David: Thanks to Carol for joining us. Now, I’ll close the show by featuring another story from the Heroes in Recovery Community as part of our hero of the week series. Today’s story comes from Jennifer S who shared it on heroesinrecovery.com., a grassroots movement where over 1,500 people have contributed their stories. Like Carol, Jennifer’s’ son has struggled with addiction.
After going through two surgeries, he became dependent on the opioids he was prescribed and eventually overdosed before seeking help. Sadly, after coming home from treatment, he relapsed. Jennifer had to make the hard choice to stop enabling him. While she still offers support for his recovery from afar, she knows that he has to find his own path, making the decision to use the tools he’s learned and taking advantage of the help he is offered.
Jennifer also knows that she has to find her own support, which he has through an uplifting online community of other mothers. She believes that community can ultimately help people like her and her son build a new life. As she says in her story, “If you are in recovery, wear it as a badge of honor. Nobody had to fight as hard as you did to get there. There is no shame involved, not for the addict and not for the parents.” Thank you for sharing that, Jennifer, and for helping to break the stigma around addiction. If you’d like to read Jennifer’s full story or share your own, visit heroesinrecovery.com.
This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today, we’ve heard from Carol Rostucher of Angels in Motion. For more about their work, visit aimangelsinmotion.org. Thank you for listening. Please take a few seconds to leave us a rating on your podcast app, and subscribe so you won’t miss any of our new episodes. See you next time.