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Grad gets new start after life of addiction

Student Success Story, May 18, 2012

Kathleen Melberg Kathleen Melberg

For Kathleen Melberg of Newport, college was a second chance.

She came to the Community College of Rhode Island from the SSTARBIRTH addiction treatment facility, where she spent a year as an inpatient battling a lifelong drug addiction.

Before SSTAR, Melberg’s home was on the streets of South Providence.

“I had an active addiction so I had a street mentality and a street life,” Melberg said. “I had no future. I was just existing.”

Melberg, 29, had tried alcohol for the first time when she was 9 years old and cocaine at age 11. She was frequently in legal trouble and gave up her young son to the care of her sister rather than raise him in such a negative environment.

“It was the typical life of a drug addict,” she said.

She was arrested in 2009 and given a choice between a drug rehabilitation program or the Adult Correctional Institutions. She chose rehab and was enrolled in SSTARBIRTH, a special substance abuse treatment program for pregnant and postpartum mothers; Melberg was four months pregnant with her daughter at the time.

Her daughter, Ciara, was born in 2009 and Melberg was only allowed to take her home from the hospital because she was enrolled in a treatment program. At SSTARBIRTH, Melberg began to turn her life around.

“One of the main reasons SSTARBIRTH is a major part of my story is they showed me a different life than the one I was living; a better life,” Melberg said. “They taught me how to live a normal life. They taught me how to live without drugs and alcohol.”

Melberg has been sober for three years but, when she first completed the program, she still did not have any ideas for her future.

“They asked me what I wanted to do and I had no clue so they suggested college,” Melberg said.

It proved to be a great choice.

CCRI’s Newport County Campus is down the street from the Children and Families Transitional Shelter for Women, Melberg’s first home after SSTARBIRTH, so she decided to enroll.

Melberg was a member of the REACH program, which works with students referred by social workers.

“Without the REACH program, it wouldn’t have been possible,” Melberg said. “That was my bridge from freshman to graduate.”

She changed majors several times but her most immediate problem was the challenge of doing college-level work; Melberg had a GED credential but had dropped out of school in the seventh grade.

She took a course called College Success taught by Professor Richard Swearingen, designed to give students the basic research and study skills they will need in higher education.

“Professor Swearingen is amazing,” Melberg said. “He wanted us to write a six-page paper, which I had never done before, and that scared a lot of [his students], but now I get A’s on all of my papers.”

Swearingen also helped Melberg find her first work-study job at the college, working in the Health Sciences Lab.

Melberg said many other faculty and staff members at the college and fellow students proved helpful: Cindy Feighan and Professor Christine Peterson in the library, Advising and Counseling Coordinator Linda Benvenuti, REACH Program Coordinator Marie Martone and student Susan Fulmer.

Melberg has one class left to take this summer to complete her Children’s Residential Certificate. She will work with children at state facilities “who aren’t safe at home or have behavioral issues.”

This path hits close to home for Melberg.

“I spent most of my teenage years in group homes, so when I noticed CCRI offered this as a certificate program it was a done deal,” she said.

Melberg thanked Human Services Department Chairman Jerry Hatfield for helping her find substitute courses so she could finish the program, which was inactive at the time.

Today Melberg volunteers with the “My Life My Choice” program, which intervenes in the lives of young girls who are at risk of becoming involved in prostitution. She manages her volunteer efforts around her course schedule, her new job at CCRI in the Newport County Campus library and service on the policy council for her daughter’s day care center.

In the evenings, Melberg baby-sits for mothers in the transitional housing unit who have to work night shifts.

“I’ve got a full house every night,” she said.

Melberg recently stopped collecting public assistance and moved to private housing last year. She has a 3.5 GPA and is doing well in college, a place she never thought she would be.

“I’m in love with CCRI,” Melberg said. “I don’t ever want to stop coming now.”

Ciara also is doing well in the Early Head Start preschool program across the street from the CCRI Newport campus. Melberg admits using drugs while pregnant with her – something she feels terrible guilt about – but Ciara is hitting all of her developmental milestones.

“She’s the star of her class,” Melberg said. “Everyone absolutely loves her. I feel safe leaving her there knowing she’s getting such good care while I’m at school and at work.”

Two years ago, Melberg was reunited with her son, who lives with her sister.

“I was very fortunate to have a sister who could take him so he wouldn’t have to go to state custody,” Melberg said. “She is doing an excellent job raising him.”

When Melberg walked across the CCRI commencement stage, it was for herself and for her daughter’s future, but also in many ways for her son.

“My daughter has never seen what my son has seen and I want him to see that that’s not who his mother is anymore,” Melberg said. “I want to walk across that stage and show him that anyone can get an education.”

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