Hands Across the Bridge lets addicts, families salute sobriety

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Vancouver resident Shannon Caseri missed nearly a decade of her two daughters’ lives because she was high on methamphetamine.

“I thought I was going to die using,” Caseri said. “I didn’t have any reason to live. I didn’t have my kids. I didn’t have a home.”

On Monday, against those odds, Caseri and her daughters celebrated what will be Caseri’s third year of sobriety by joining hands with a crowd of 2,262 people on the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River.

The human chain of recovering addicts, their friends, family and supporters marked the 10th annual Hands Across the Bridge event, held each year on Labor Day. The stunning assembly on the pedestrian lane of the bridge, along with the Oxfest music festival in Vancouver’s Esther Short Park, honors those who have recovered from alcohol and other addictions. It also signals the beginning of National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month.

Monday’s participants together reported a total of about 4,325 years, six months and 12 days in recovery, said Patty Katz, board chairwoman of Hands Across the Bridge Oregon and Washington.

Caseri, 35, contributed about three years of that time.

Caseri tried methamphetamine only once before she was hooked for about 10 years, she said. During that time, she lost her job, her home, her children and other relationships with family and friends. Her mother took custody of her daughters in 2001. She also was in jail 23 times.

She spoke about her path to recovery Monday at the Oxfest. The daylong festival happens in conjunction with Hands Across the Bridge and includes music, testimonies and advocacy activities. “Ox” stands for the Oxford House nonprofit organization. The charity offers group homes to recovering addicts who are committed to sobriety.

Caseri said the turning point in her life was in July 2008 when she appeared in handcuffs and shackles in Clark County District Court on a charge of possession of a controlled substance.

“When I walked into the courtroom, my mother and oldest daughter, Desirae, were sitting in the courtroom, and Desirae was in tears,” Caseri recalled. “My daughter had never seen me in shackles and handcuffs.”

Caseri said she begged then-District Court Judge Rich Melnick for help and told him she was willing to do whatever it took to become sober.

“When I went back to my cell, I had a letter from my youngest daughter stating she would rather me not love her than me do drugs,” Caseri said. “Another reason I knew this time I was done.”

Through the Substance Abuse Court, Caseri enrolled in and completed Vancouver’s Lifeline Connections inpatient treatment program in 30 days, she said. Then, she found a place in an Oxford House with two other roommates. That was when Desirae, 16, moved back in with her mother. Caseri’s youngest daughter, Destiny, 14, joined the family when Caseri found an apartment later on with the Second Step affordable housing program for women and families. They’ve lived together for about two years, during which time Caseri found a job at a fruit-packing company.

Her two daughters, who were in the audience Monday, embraced Caseri after her speech.

“Both girls have their mom back now,” Caseri said. “I am now able to provide for myself and my girls and still have a happy life and my recovery. God and my children are the center of my life today.”

Toni Eby, coordinator of Clark County Drug Action Team, said when addicts become clean, it’s important for the community to support them through events such as Oxfest and social services, including prevention, treatment and transition back into society.

“When you see someone as a resource rather than a burden, you’ve opened up a whole new realm of possibilities,” Eby said. “We are a fortunate that a large part of our community realizes that people in recovery have something to give.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.