This is the fifth in an occasional series about jobs in Brooklyn.
By Evan MacDonald
Last fall, Robert Cruz looked at his life, and realized he hated the person he had become.
He had lost the career he loved as an Army paramedic because of persistent knee problems. Without a college degree, he was relegated to a job as a custodian. He suffered from depression, and sank into drug addiction.
Finally, at age 45 and amid his second stint in rehab, he decided to turn his life around.
This is how the story of how it happened.
The Downward Spiral
Robert Cruz is about 5-foot-10, with a warm, clean-shaven face. He wears glasses with thin frames, and, on this Saturday afternoon, a black beanie cap and a matching leather trench coat. He’s relaxed as he leans back in his chair, affable and gregarious with the people he meets.
When Cruz was 25 years old, he joined the Army. He was a paramedic, a non-commissioned officer, and it was a job he loved. He loved being the one to help injured soldiers and train new recruits. He would teach them the basic skills emergency medical technicians need to know, like CPR and how to treat a wound. He would also teach them how to use all the medical equipment. “I understood it was a dangerous profession,” he said, “but it didn’t deter me from what I knew I wanted to do.”
During his tenure he was stationed in Kuwait, Korea, and Hawaii. He rose to the rank of sergeant. “I wasn’t the type to act like a drill sergeant,” he said. “I was pretty laid back, but firm. I didn’t take any crap. I expected nothing but the best from everyone.”
He has many memories from the military, and some of them are horrifying. During his first call as a paramedic, he and his companions found a man in a car whose brains had been shot out of his head and onto the back seat. Another time, he watched a man burn to death because he and his colleagues didn’t have the necessary heat gear required to rescue him.
Other memories, though, he’s much more fond of — like the time he helped a woman give birth in an ambulance. “We were driving along to the hospital, and we went over a bump, and the driver hit the brakes,” Cruz said. “And we looked back, and we saw the baby’s head. It had just popped out.”
But in 1995, four years into his service, he ruptured a tendon in his left knee while playing volleyball. A year later, he suffered another rupture in his right knee, and he said he was never the same again. He was plagued by knee pain over the final six years of his service, leaving him significantly weakened in a profession where strength is of the utmost importance. As a medic, he had to carry all of his equipment as well as the standard gear of an infantry soldier. The weight took its toll on his knees.
By December 2001, he was granted an honorary discharge, and found himself at a crossroads. He didn’t have a degree, so he couldn’t go into medicine. He tried to get jobs in security, but he was determined to be overqualified. For a year and a half, he searched to no avail. He was stuck.
With no job and no prospects, Cruz began his downward spiral. “I was upset because I really loved what I did,” he said. “So I fell into a depression.” He began drinking, smoking marijuana, and sniffing cocaine. By 2007 he had escalated to smoking crack cocaine because, he said, he was “curious.” Soon, it became his life. “I tried it, and I was off to the races for nine months, on a road of self-destruction,” he said. “I didn’t even want to go out anymore. I wanted to do nothing except stay home and smoke crack.”
He met a woman with whom he struck up a romantic relationship. They smoked together, and soon, she became pregnant with Cruz’s child. The child — a daughter, Destiny— was born four years ago. Her postnatal screening showed she was born with drugs in her system. The hospital alerted the Administration for Child Services, and the agency sent representatives to the hospital.
When they got there, they told Cruz they’d need to take her away if his urine tested positive for drugs, too. He never even took the test. He had smoked a blunt a few hours earlier to celebrate his daughter’s birth. So Destiny stayed in the hospital for a few days before being taken away and placed in the care of her aunt.
Cruz was devastated. He knew he needed to get clean and get his daughter back.
Cruz knew the first step was going to rehab, so he ended the relationship with Destiny’s mother and checked into Samaritan Village Veteran’s Program in Manhattan. He stayed there from December 2007 until May 2009. But he relapsed shortly after being discharged from the clinic. Cruz said he relapsed because he was still depressed. He had completed the treatment and done the work, but all his problems were still there. He still had no job and no money coming in, and he couldn’t get his daughter back. He was in a brief relationship after completing treatment, but Cruz said it ended poorly. His depression deepened.
“I was too ashamed to let people know I relapsed, so for seven months I was on a downward spiral,” Cruz said.
His mother, whom he was living with at the time, finally had enough of his drug use and ordered him out of her house. He thought about his children – his 26-year-old daughter and 16-year-old-son, both of whom were the products of his two failed marriages, but especially his youngest daughter, Destiny. He knew he had to get clean if he was ever going to repair the relationships he had damaged. “Addiction is just what I knew how to do, and it put me in a false comfort zone,” Cruz said. “Character, self-respect, and compassion, those were some of the values I grew up with. But because of my addiction, I pushed them to the side.”
He checked back into Samaritan Village in March 2010, this time with a greater sense of purpose. Within a month, he had made enough of a recovery that he was allowed weekend passes to leave the facility for personal visits. He remains there still, and now he’s allowed the highest level of freedom — he can check out of the facility on Friday at 6:30 p.m. and not have to return until Sunday at 6 p.m.
Cruz believes that the key to his rehabilitation came when one of his vocational rehabilitation counselors, Doritt Hathaway, proposed that he enter the HOPE Program in Brooklyn. It’s a free program that teaches poor New Yorkers the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. “They have a great reputation, because I heard about it from other vocational counselors,” Hathaway said, adding that, in her view, HOPE “really prepares people with whatever they need.”
Hathaway saw in Cruz the seeds for success. He had medical training, a resume, and a skill set. Because Cruz was not yet eligible for leaving rehab to look for full time work, HOPE seemed a good, interim step. “They go to HOPE during phase three [of rehab], when they are not yet allowed to go out to work anyway,” Hathaway said. “So it’s not a hard sell. I like to tell them you never know.”
But there was one catch — HOPE places its students in 200-hour internships at the end of their classroom work, and the internships are unpaid. Cruz says he was hesitant about not having a paying job, but ultimately decided to give it a try.
“At first I didn’t want to go,” Cruz said. “I wanted to try and find a job. But things tend to have a strange way of working out.”
Irene Camp, a development director at HOPE, said the program, which was founded in 1984, steers graduates toward careers in food retail, maintenance, building facilities, office work, clerical work, social service, and animal care. It enrolls about 200 new students a year, with about 20 students in each class section. The classes are taught in two programs: an eight-week program and a 12-week program. Camp said nearly all of HOPE’s students secure internships after their classroom work is completed, and about 70 percent of students transition into jobs.
Cruz joined the program in November 2010, and right away, he made an impression on the instructors. “I was utterly impressed with his sense of himself and where he wanted to go, and also with where he thought he needed improvement,” said Danya Pastuszek, the director of work readiness at HOPE. It is part of her team’s job is to collect the information that will best match students with the right career track. Cruz, she said, struck her as self-reflective, conscientious, as well as well dressed.
Cruz began taking classes. His days started with discussions about current events. Students debated and analyzed issues in the news. Right from the beginning, Cruz, the former sergeant, became a leader.
“He became one of those go-to people in the classroom,” Pastuszek said. “He interacted well with people who were in his class, and even with people who were in other classes. He was that guy in the hallway who would smile at everyone, and shake everyone’s hand.”
After the current events session, in a sample day, he joined in the men’s discussion group, a time to talk about personal issues. His mornings ended with a work readiness class, where students would be presented with various customer service scenarios and would discuss how to react to them. He took a computer class after lunch, learning such programs as Microsoft Office, e-mail, and mail merge. At 5 p.m., Cruz would stay an optional two extra hours, to get more practice with computers.
At the end of his 12 weeks of classes Cruz was matched with an internship at Unique People Services in the Bronx. It was a long commute, and at first he was hesitant. But Pastuszek said the job seemed like the right fit. “Robert was responsible and self-sufficient, and had a natural drive to do well,” she said. “The site seemed like the right one for him, and the distance didn’t seem like it was going to be a problem.”
On his first day of work Cruz felt he had made a good choice.
On the second his new employer offered to make the position full time.
Cruz works in reception at Unique People Services. It takes him about an hour and twenty minutes to get there every morning, so he needs to wake up around 5:45 a.m. to get there by 8. He works for the executive secretary of the company, doing various data entry jobs throughout the day.
“I try to do my best, because I’m so grateful,” he said. “I dress properly in business attire, and I do my hair right. I don’t wear overpowering cologne. And I like to be kept busy — any job they have for me, I do.”
He’s due to be discharged from the rehab clinic in June, and he’s already looking for apartments. He wants to live in the Bronx because it’s close to his job and he likes the area. It will be a very different situation for him than Samaritan Village, where he lives in a room with seven other men and has a midnight curfew.
He’s also in the process of filing for custody of Destiny, who remains in foster care with her aunt. Cruz gets to see her every weekend, and said he’s been told that if he completes his rehab and finds a place to live, he’ll be awarded custody. He declined to talk about the whereabouts of Destiny’s mother out of respect for her privacy.
“I’m going to be a single father, and I’m scared,” he said. “I’ve never done it before. But I love my daughter.” He’s also repaired relationships with the rest of his family. Two weekends ago he visited his mother’s house, where he had dinner and watched movies with his family.
He’s also planning on taking online classes through HOPE to get his food handler’s license. He loves to cook, and aspires to open his own restaurant one day.
“All those years I was addicted to drugs and alcohol, I thought I was happy. But I wasn’t happy,” Cruz said. “And now, I am.”