(Steven Lane/The Columbian)Buy this photo
(Steven Lane/The Columbian)Buy this photo
Vancouver couple Kenneth and Tracey Jennings met while they were drug addicts. Their difficult journey together to recovery would lead to marriage, family and a progeny of other recovering addicts.
The Jenningses and many of the people their advocacy efforts have helped were among 2,241 people who joined hands Monday on the Interstate 5 Bridge to form a human chain over the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.
The 11th annual Hands Across The Bridge event celebrates recovery from drug addiction and signals the community’s dedication to supporting recovery, said Thomas Breitenbauch, an event organizer. The spectacle of joined hands on the green steel-framed bridge drew congratulatory honks from passing motorists.
Participants included at least 870 recovering addicts who reported a combined 3,939 years, four months and 12 days of being clean, Breitenbauch said.
Participants filed onto the northbound span from downtown Vancouver’s Esther Short Park from the Washington side and from a parking lot at the Red Lion Hotel on the River — Jantzen Beach on the Oregon side.
Before the procession, Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt presented the Jenningses with the Family Lifetime Achievement Award for “advocacy and support of the recovery community” during a ceremony on stage at the park.
“We couldn’t do any of this without you, so thank you,” said Tracey Jennings, 39, addressing a crowd in the park.
“Thank you,” a couple of men shouted back.
It was an emotional moment for Kenneth Jennings, 43.
A decade ago, the 11-count felon said he couldn’t have imagined that he would one day help others overcome drug addiction, let alone overcome his own addiction to methamphetamine.
He sponsors men at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt as a way to give back to a community that helped him beat dependence and as a way to hold himself accountable to others in staying sober.
“I’ve been clean since November 3, 2002,” Kenneth Jennings said. “Before that, I was a bad neighbor, an absent parent. I was always on my way to jail. Drug Court was the catalyst for my turnaround.”
He began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step addiction-recovery meetings and was connected with a mentor who helped guide him through the process and empathized and encouraged him. That led to reuniting with his two children and other family members and eventually getting a long-term job. He’d never been able to hold a job for a longer than a few months when he was on drugs.
He’s now a steel mill worker and a family man with a growing brood at home.
He uses his story to inspire others facing the same hurdle. He holds meetings at Larch Corrections Center to tell his story and help others in the recovery process. After inmates are released from prison, he picks them up on their first day out and connects them with a support group and resources.
One of those inmates was Jonathan McFadden, 43, of Vancouver.
“I had known Ken for years,” McFadden said. “We used drugs together. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. I had no idea he was clean. It was the first time I believed the 12-step program could work. I thought, ‘I know this guy. If it worked for him, it could work for me.’ It was an epiphany.”
McFadden was clean when he got out of prison a year later and since then has absorbed himself in recovery advocacy work. He now works full time at a restaurant, has his own apartment and was married on July 4.
Together in sobriety
Tracey Jennings overcame her drug addiction after suffering drug-related medical problems and spending time in the hospital. She became clean before Kenneth, and for a while, the couple separated because Kenneth was still struggling to shun drugs. Since her recovery, she has worked in the drug treatment industry and, like her husband, she sponsors women in the 12-step program.
She and her husband have both regained custody of all but one of their four children. They recently adopted another child, a 7-year-old daughter of a drug addict who otherwise would have stayed in the foster care system.
Kenneth Jennings said the most rewarding part of overcoming drug addiction has been reuniting with his family, and he still chokes up when he talks about it or when he talks about any of his sponsors reuniting with their families.
The Oxfest, organized by the Oxford House Inc. addiction recovery houses, followed Hands Across the Bridge on Monday in Esther Short Park. The festival celebrates addiction recovery with live music, games and other activities. The festival is separate from the Hands Across the Bridge event, but organizers hold the events jointly to observe National Recovery Month.
September is designated as National Recovery Month by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; firstname.lastname@example.org.