As a kid, Steve Simmelkjaer loved playing basketball and softball, with dreams of becoming a professional athlete. Growing up in Harlem with 11 siblings, he found mentorship and opportunity, but he contended with poverty, stigma, and drugs and alcohol too. After a harrowing journey with substance use, Steve finally broke down and asked his mother for help.
Today, he serves his community as the coordinator of Gaudenzia’s SHOUT Outreach — a prevention program in Erie County, PA. With the advent of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) he spends much of his time transporting clients to methadone clinics and outreach services, connecting them to the care they need to reach and maintain long-term recovery.
This is Steve’s story.
I Wanted to be a Normal Kid
I was the sixth out of twelve children. We lived on the fourteenth floor of one of the oldest Projects in Harlem. As a child, I remember wondering why we had to share three bedrooms, but I never questioned that with our mother. I remember my two older sisters leaving the house at a very young age and my two older brothers joining the Armed Services. That was during the Vietnam era. Once my older siblings moved out of the house, I didn’t have anyone to mentor me. There was a program called United Black Association (UBA), though. I was able to become a part of a community organization and was asked to be a Junior Staff Leader. That was so cool, because it gave me a sense of belonging, and I learned how to interact with my peers. I wanted to be a professional athlete. I loved softball and baseball. I tried out for basketball at the high school level, but I wasn’t chosen. I wanted to be a normal kid without the stigma of being poor and confused about life.
My mother was very quiet in her spirit, but always involved in cleaning the house and doing the windows. Our father didn’t live in the household with us, but she encouraged us to have a relationship with him, and I did. I attended elementary and junior high in Harlem. In junior high, I started getting work experience delivering newspapers in the building I lived in. Then, I worked in a shoe repair shop, shining shoes and doing customer service for $7 a week. I went to high school in the Bronx. This was significant because the Board of Education decided to give families who lived in Harlem the opportunity to attend schools in other boroughs. I chose the Bronx because my favorite cousins lived nearby. Those were good times.
A False Sense of Pride
I was about 15 when my peer group and I started drinking wine. Suddenly, it transitioned into sniffing heroin and popping pills. It continued all throughout high school, where I also became a drug dealer. I remember one incident where I took some wine to school, forgot it was in my bookbag and threw the bag on the floor, causing it to burst. I was questioned about what it was and sent to the office. They made me a monitor for the day. I delivered school items to the necessary classes and didn’t receive any significant punishment, other than having to inform my mother of what happened.
Using gave me a sense of having a new image and status among my peers, especially females. I was really liked and respected as a person, but for the wrong reasons. This type of status gave me a very uncomfortable image. It reinforced some self-esteem issues I was not comfortable with. It gave me a false sense of pride over hidden inadequacy issues that I didn’t have to face. I was going on 19, and I recognized I was not the person I wanted to be. By this time, I was an injection drug user. I was strung out and out of control.
Busted on the Avenue
Two significant things happened in my life: my high school sweetheart got pregnant, and I was busted on what we called “the avenue” for selling drugs to an undercover narcotics agent. I was arrested and processed through the system of incarceration for sale and possession of heroin. This process included being taken through this underground place known as “the Tombs,” and then to the Brooklyn House of Detention. Finally, I was taken to a prison called Rikers Island.
I was incarcerated for six months. Because we were poor, my mom didn’t have money to get me out sooner. My girlfriend’s parents encouraged her to have an abortion, not knowing how long I would be in prison for. This began my awakening. I realized I had a problem, and I was desperate for help. My mom finally borrowed the money from my grandfather and bailed me out of prison. I was clean from using drugs and alcohol over that period, but once I was released and back at home, my aunt gave me $5. The first thing I did was purchase heroin and start using again.
A Place for You to Go
I went to my mom and cried out for help. I told her I was strung out on heroin. I can recall the tearful experience of letting her know. She embraced me in my emotional weakness and suggested I go see a man named Mr. Willie Horton, who himself was a former “drug addict.” He had opened a storefront on Fifth Avenue in Harlem for cats like me after he had gotten his life together. He wanted to give back. He said, “I have a place for you to go.” The program was in Philadelphia, at a place called Gaudenzia.
We made a call, and my mother, aunt, and I travelled on the Amtrak Train on November 10, 1969. We were picked up and brought to 1901 Tioga Street in North Philadelphia. To be accepted into the program, I had to make an emotional investment to demonstrate I was serious about treatment. For me, that involved standing up on a chair in the dining room screaming out, “My name is Steve, and I need help,” until the impact was felt.
The first real challenge was accepting I was in a new city and state. Leaving my hometown, my family, my girlfriend, and my friends challenged my fear and comfort. The first real therapeutic process was the groups we had to attend and be challenged on how real we wanted to make a change. They were called Marathon Groups, and they lasted for hours in between meals. You became completely vulnerable, like being naked, especially when they wanted you to share your feelings, thoughts, emotions, and your past lifestyle.
Now, it’s important to state the language at the time was not called “recovery” or “staying clean,” but rather, the process was about surrendering everything you believed was important to you. Back then, the programs were 18-24 months, but I ended up doing 30. The therapeutic process over that expanded time, along with some of the most dynamic mentors, was the key to my future success. I became a Gaudenzia graduate in 1972.
My Life Began
My life began when the state Department of Community Affairs asked Gaudenzia to participate in a community-based outreach program in Harrisburg, PA. The goal was to inform and educate local and surrounding communities about the importance of drug and alcohol treatment. I was honored to be accepted to participate along with two other Gaudenzia graduates, but they were sent to Erie. After finishing my program in Harrisburg, I was sent out to Erie as well. As a direct result of this work, the office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse offered me a job, and I came back to Erie in January 1973. I’ve lived here ever since.
Over the past 49 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work in the field of drug and alcohol treatment, promoting community health. I’ve been married twice, and today I have five dynamic biological children, many grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. During my second marriage, we adopted five children through the Office of Children & Youth Services. The last two children were boys who, as a direct result of their biological mom’s heroin use, were both born with symptoms of that disease on a medical level.
What Was Freely Given
I am forever grateful to Gaudenzia, where I had the privilege of coming back to work as the SHOUT Outreach Coordinator. I am also endlessly grateful for the dynamic mentors back then, my deceased Mom, and Mr. Willie Horton. If I continued using, without the shadow of a doubt, I would not be alive. I would have missed the opportunity to be a productive and responsible member of society. I wouldn’t have employment stability, which enables me to help others by giving away what was freely given to me.
Today, I am beginning to do more walking exercises. I love taking my adoptive children to parks in the Erie area to participate in outside physical activities. Probably the most important thing I do outside of work is that I’m an active member of my NA home group called Gratitude in the Hood. I am a trusted servant and have held the position of GSR (Group Service Representative) for the past 29 years. Most importantly, though, I’m an active member of Friendship Baptist Church, where I serve as the Senior Deacon. My spiritual life is probably the most important aspect of my life, especially because of how it has helped me become a better father, grandfather, great-grandfather, big brother, uncle, cousin, and friend to others.
Love to See the Day
If it is God’s will, in January 2023, I will celebrate 50 years of community service. My hope is to stay healthy and alive, so I can continue to give back to others daily. I enjoy seeing my biological and adoptive children prosper in their lives, and my grandchildren finishing college while they excel athletically in football and basketball. I would love to see the day that we could all experience a reduction in drug and alcohol addiction, in gun violence and crime, and see a greater positive experience for families living and experiencing a healthier spiritual lifestyle.
If you or someone you love needs help finding treatment for substance use disorder, please call our 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) today or email [email protected]