The gathering of people in the basement hall of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Washington Township could be any ordinary fellowship group.
The room fills gradually with about 50 young adults and teenagers, chatting and laughing as they take seats in the wide double ring of chairs.
They’re residents of the surrounding suburbs, and though they aren’t all parishioners or even all Catholics, they represent the demographic — with about the same diversity in age, income and ethnicity — of the congregation that fills the church upstairs each Sunday.
It’s not until the priest at the head of the circle gives an introduction, lays out the ground rules and begins the circle of introductions that the group’s purpose becomes clear.
There’s a formula for the introductions: “I’m Jim. I’m an addict. I’m here for myself, and for my family.” First name and why you’re here.
Except that about half of those gathered aren’t addicts; they’re the parents of one.
The group’s mixed nature is unique in the region, says its founder and leader Father John Stabeno of St. Charles Borromeo. The disease that it confronts — and the anguish of those affected by it — is not.
Camden County alone saw 159 drug-related deaths in 2013, according to news reports. Heroin in the region can often be traced to the city of Camden as a distribution center — although with the recent crackdown by the Camden County police force, that centrality is starting to dissipate, Stabeno says.
The Camden County Police Department estimates that 85 percent of drug offenders apprehended in the city do not reside in Camden City.
“The drug problem isn’t in Camden. Most of the kids who are dying are from the suburbs,” Father Stabeno said. “The middle class kids have the means, and their parents think they’re helping when they shelter them a little bit, getting them lawyers, paying their fines, protecting them from consequences.”
“A lot of people don’t see where the problem is,” he said. “It gets swept under the rug.”
At the Monday evening support group, Father Stabeno sits at the head of the double circle. The 20-something man sitting on his right seems as comfortable around him as the mom on his left.
The rules of the group include no using the word “you,” only “I.” Speak about your personal experiences; don’t give targeted advice.
Conversation starts slowly. One participant offers a success story: she’s been sober for two years. A long discussion begins when parents talk about the heartbreaking, endless back-and-forth of welcoming home a child who claims to be recovered, only to realize they’ve been manipulated by a son or daughter who is still sick.
“How could I live with myself if he died out on the street?” a mom says. Several parents share similar experiences. They couldn’t make themselves turn a child away, even though they felt betrayed by every new arrest.
“The best thing my parents ever did for me was kick me out of the house,” a young man says. “My mom didn’t talk to me for five months. She saved my life.”
In his 29 years working in addictions and recovery, Father Stabeno said he noticed a trend: he spent more time talking on the phone to parents than he did to the addicts he was counseling.
“I thought, why don’t I just get them all together and it will be a lot easier,” he said. “What I noticed was a parent can listen to somebody else’s son and be more attentive than they are to their own.”
“The addicts, too, listen to somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s spouse, and actually hear what they’re doing to them. Someone will say, ‘I can’t believe what he does to his parents,’ and I’ll turn to him and say, ‘Don’t you do the same thing?’ It’s educational for both groups.”
The parish has been hosting his support group for families on Monday nights for 10 years. The priest helped start a similar group at Infant Jesus Parish in Woodbury Heights, but other than those two, he knows of no others in the region who use the mixed approach of addicts and their parents meeting together. Usually the two sides meet for support separately.
The parish also hosts outside groups, including weekly meetings of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and their respective support groups for family members, Alanon and Naranon. The parish hosts “recovery basketball” games weekly, and Father Stabeno runs an additional men’s recovery group and a bereavement group for families.
“People become familiar with coming to St. Charles for help. It’s like a little hub of recovery,” Father Stabeno said. “Part of the recovery process is relationships. They have to plug into a support network; they need a sense of community, and that’s why the meetings are so important. That’s what we try to offer here.”
He sees what he calls the “epidemic” of drug addiction in the suburbs as the result of multiple factors. Kids grow up feeling isolated and alienated, better able to communicate via social media than in person, he says.
“At the heart of the disease is a lack of hope — despair, self-hatred. The drug fills a void in them because they’re isolated; they’re alienated from themselves, from society, and from God,” he said.
“That only can be filled with things of the spirit, not material possessions — not new sneakers, not steroids, not a relationship or a new car; but with a connection to a higher power, with prayer and meditation. And if addiction is a spiritual disease, the churches should be the urgent care centers.”
For parents, he recommends having conversations with children personally about drugs, rather than relying on school-based prevention programs.
“The parents need to learn about drug addiction before their kids are addicted,” he said. “These values come from the families, not from the schools.”