New London – Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Rick Welch, a native New Londoner, used to walk the streets drunk and high.
Today, Welch, 58, combs the streets for those who were just like him and offers help to treat their addiction.
Welch, an executive director at Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery program, recently opened a satellite office out of the Church of the City at 250 State St. And while the program has teen in its name, he said it is open to those 17 and older.
“I left New London a mess, and now I come back with a message,” said Welch, who splits his time between his home in Vermont and New Haven, where Teen Challenge has its main campus. “There is hope. You are worth it. God can do it in your life.”
In Connecticut, the program can house up to 70 “students,” as they are called. The residential, 15-month program is affiliated with the Assemblies of God churches, and models its program on biblical principles of faith, morality and honesty, to name a few.
The program mostly caters to men, but there is a residential facility for women in Providence.
If people require detoxification, they are referred to a medical facility since Teen Challenge is unable to provide that service. Once a person completes detox, the individual can join the program.
Welch said students don’t have to be Christian to join, but they do have to have an open mind.
“We call them students because they are learning a new way of life,” Welch said. “We want them to think differently … to gain moral behavior. We want them to be honest with themselves and others. We want them to learn self-worth and that God sees value in them.”
Welch said the nonprofit program is funded mostly through donations and fundraisers. He said no one is turned away because they don’t have money.
The Teen Challenge program started in Brooklyn in 1958, initially helping teens but evolving into helping adults as well. There are more than 250 Teen Challenge centers throughout the United States.
“When I went to the Teen Challenge program in New Haven, I was homeless,” Welch said. “I had two Hefty bags with all of my belongings, and I was welcomed with open arms.”
Welch said like many drug addicts, his downward spiral into addiction was triggered by a traumatic event. For him, it started when a male relative started to sexually abuse him when he was 9.
The abuse continued for three years until, at the age of 12, he stood up to his abuser, and the molestation stopped. It was around that time that Welch said he tried marijuana. Then it progressed into speed.
“As I think back, I used drugs to mask the pain,” he said. “I wanted to forget what had happened to me.”
Welch got married at 17, and shortly thereafter he had a son, Richard. For a time, Welch said he worked two jobs to support his family. He then did an apprenticeship at Electric Boat and learned how to become a pipefitter. The marriage, however, didn’t last long, and the failure in that relationship led to harder drugs.
In his 20s, he tried cocaine. He joined a local indie rock group called The Cartoons in 1981, which enjoyed moderate success in New England and recorded an album.
He said the time with the band was all about “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
The band broke up around seven years later, and Welch said his addiction grew. In his 30s, he was a full-fledged addict using heroin. His 30s were filled with entering 16 drug treatment programs and detoxifying at least 56 times.
But none of them worked.
He stole from his family to sustain his drug habit. It got so bad that his mother, Dorothy, said he could no longer stay in their family home because she couldn’t watch him kill himself.
Still, the pain he inflicted on his family wasn’t enough to change his life.
It wasn’t until 1997 when Welch’s life started to turn around. His son, then a student at the University of Rhode Island, attended a church service where members of Teen Challenge spoke.
“My son went looking for me in New London, and he found me on the street, roaming,” Welch said. “I wanted to ignore him. I was in bad shape and weighed about 128 pounds. He told me about the program. He said God loved me and that it would work.”
Welch attended the program in New Haven and knew eight months in that his calling was to help other addicts.
He launched the Teen Challenge program in 2005 in Johnson, Vt., and took over the New Haven program in 2010.
For 18 years, he has been sober. He remarried and had another son. Last year, he became an ordained minister through the Assemblies of God ministry.
In New London, the program will start off slowly, opening from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and 2 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays. He also wants to bring Teen Challenge’s Making Good Decisions program into area schools. The program has former addicts talk about their addiction and recovery in a nonreligious way.
“It’s amazing how life has come full circle,” Welch said. “My life in New London was marred with drug addiction, and now we’re helping people who were just like me.”
For more information on about the program in New London, call (860) 629-7939.