Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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Hands Across the Bridge shares recovering addicts’ uplifting stories

Holding on to hope, recovery

By , Columbian staff writer
14 Photos
Anna Saiz and her son Dolan Saiz, 11, share a moment at the Hands Across the Bridge event while honoring Jon "JT" Saiz, husband and father, who died last year of COVID-19.
Anna Saiz and her son Dolan Saiz, 11, share a moment at the Hands Across the Bridge event while honoring Jon "JT" Saiz, husband and father, who died last year of COVID-19. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

No matter how long you’ve spent living in darkness and despair under a proverbial bridge — or even a real one — it’s always possible to step into the light, take a friend’s hand and walk across that bridge to a better life.

“Treatment works and recovery is possible” was the unanimous message shared by activists and volunteers, addiction-recovery professionals and just plain folks during Hands Across the Bridge, an annual Labor Day event that draws a uniquely friendly, supportive and spirited crowd to Esther Short Park — and then to the Interstate 5 Bridge.

“I don’t think any city, anywhere in the world, has a recovery community quite like this one,” the Rev. Brian Norris of Vancouver’s Living Hope Church told the crowd that gathered Monday morning to take in inspirational personal stories of overcoming addiction — as well as announcements about Clark County’s growing network of treatment programs and supportive services.

After awards were made and white doves honoring those who’ve been lost were released into the sky, hundreds of Hands Across the Bridge participants marched south through downtown and onto the sidewalk of the I-5 Bridge, where they linked up with a fellow contingent from Oregon who were holding a sister celebration outside the Red Lion hotel at Jantzen Beach.

All joined hands and prayed, forming a bistate chain of support and celebration, as a Tidewater tugboat sounded its horn in the river below.

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“Addiction has a huge impact on everyone in our community — families, law enforcement, the justice system,” said Hands Across the Bridge Foundation Chairwoman Tabby Stokes. Stokes told the crowd that she’s in “long-term recovery” and hasn’t touched drink or drugs in more than 16 years.

It’s been 19 years for event emcee Steve Mahoney, he said. “If you don’t believe in miracles, you should have seen me then,” Mahoney told the crowd.

Every person who showed up Monday to acknowledge their struggles and celebrate their recovery is a community leader, said vice chair Alizz Quarles.

“We are here to fight the stigma. This is a celebration of being our best selves, of the hard work that takes,” Quarles said. “It is powerful to see people come up from the depth of their addiction.”

Speaker Heather Evans said she was on drugs for 19 years and lost custody of four children. “It was brutal and heartbreaking but I knew I would do anything to get them back,” she said.

Evans was homeless and “broken” when she turned to the Open House Ministries shelter in downtown Vancouver, which is where she really started learning how to be a parent for the first time, she said. Now, she said, she’s proud of her recovery and of her children, who are doing fine.

Speaker Zane Thomas told the crowd he started using drugs at a young age, and kept using them after alienating his family and losing a loved one to overdose. Even after a spell in jail and a complete change of scenery, Thomas maintained his addictive behavior through alcohol.

The devil was still on his shoulder, Thomas said, telling him that this time was different — this time he could handle it.

But he never could, Thomas said. In the end, it was a mental health diagnosis that got him the help he needed, and cleared his path to sobriety, he said.

Speaker Terry Sweeney told the crowd he started using drugs at age 10 and didn’t quit until he was 53, in 2017.

27 Photos
The "Hands Across the Bridge" annual event celebrates people in recovery from drug addiction.
Hands Across the Bridge Photo Gallery

“I was an active addict for 43 years,” Sweeney said. “I was so desperate. I was homeless. I was destitute.”

Sweeney said he was arrested 40 times “in this county alone” on misdemeanor charges. He repeatedly tried and failed to get clean. He was headed for prison when he opted into Clark County’s drug court diversion program — and that’s how he found hope, inspiration and a new direction in life.

Now, Sweeney is a drug-court mentor and certified recovery coach and peer-support counselor at Recovery Cafe — offering hope, inspiration and new directions to others, he said.

“Today I have an amazing life with amazing people,” he said.