Ricardo Verdeguez left Cuba for the United States in 1994 on a handmade raft and was sent to Guantanamo Bay after being intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. He was held in the prison for a year before being sent to Portland.
Though life in the United States was good, Verdeguez struggled with alcohol and drug addiction — a battle he fought for 30 years, until he found Puentes.
Puentes, developed by Central City Concern, is a culturally specific program serving Latinx community members with substance use disorder. The program also provides mental health treatment services.
Funded through Multnomah County Behavioral Health Division and Medicaid, Puentes helps break down many of the challenges of first-and second-generation clients, many of whom are not confident in their English.
The program not only provides access to health care, mentorship and pathways to housing for people struggling with addiction or mental health challenges, but also wraps resources around the entire family of participating individuals. During this extraordinary time, as communities of color, particularly Latinx communities, shoulder a disproportionate burden from COVID-19, Verdeguez says Puentes can offer hope.
“They came from where I came,” he says. “A lot of them were first-generation, English was their second language, so they knew a lot of my struggles.”
Verdeguez had been through other treatment programs before, but always felt like an outsider because of his language barrier.
When he found Puentes, he was relieved. Services were in Spanish and tailored to his needs as a first-generation Latinx individual.
After working with Puentes, Verdeguez found a road to recovery, obtained stable housing, and received help navigating his immigration paperwork. Today, he is a mentor himself and case manager at Puentes who helps others.
Beyond a shared language, one of the most valuable things is that mentors and staff come from the same community. “We share not just the language but the culture and even the life experiences,” says Daniel Garcia, CCC’s director of Latinx services.
José Gonzalez, another former client, noticed this right away when he first came to Puentes for treatment.
The ability to talk to Latinx mentors and counselors helped him tremendously.
Like Verdeguez, Gonzalez had tried many treatment programs in the past, but the connections he made in a culturally-specific program set Puentes apart.
“We’ve been through the same struggles, single mothers… stuff like that,” he says.
This shared experience contributed significantly to his relationship with Verdeguez, who was one of Gonzalez’s mentors at Puentes.
Gonzalez remembers feeling hope when he met Verdeguez for the first time. “It became more personal to see another Latino man [staying sober] and expressing his life in recovery,” he says.
“To see [Verdeguez] as a professional guiding those in the hole that he came out of, it really inspired me.”
Aside from improved connections, Verdeguez says the sheer dedication by the Puentes staff helped him on his path towards sobriety. Verdeguez remembers the short length of other treatment programs he attended, sometimes as little as three months. “I needed more time because I had 30 years [of] using,” he says.
Some of those programs lacked a way back into the community after recovery, but in Puentes: “You come into treatment for three months, [you had] graduation, they give you a certificate, then [you] go back to where you came from,” he says.
With Puentes, Verdeguez was able to get connected to a larger recovery community. He was also plugged into wraparound services through program partners after his time in Puentes, including health insurance through Multnomah County, and help with housing and education through El Programa Hispano and Bridges to Change.
Many clients who have completed their treatment with Puentes — they’re called alumni — return as informal mentors. Gonzalez sees helping others managing substance use disorders as almost a responsibility for clients who have been through the program.
“I’m one of the people that got dragged out of the hole, you know? And like, what do you do when you’re out of the hole? You reach back down and get others out,” Gonzalez says.
Since 2005, Puentes has helped about 200 Latinx community members per year. This year, amidst unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19, the organization hopes to serve even more members.
Since the start of the pandemic, Puentes staff have been conducting counseling sessions over Zoom.
“I think that both staff and clients have been incredible champions on moving this forward in such a timely manner and with little time we were already switching and adapting to the new normal working from home,” says Garcia of working in the pandemic.
Apart from working in the pandemic, finding potential employees who meet all of the qualifications for the work has also been a challenge.
“It is very difficult to find somebody who... speaks the language, who understands the culture, who has the degrees and who wants to work with the Latinx community,” Garcia says.
Qualifications need to adjust to allow more Latinx people to serve in social and peer service fields, Garcia says.
Just before the pandemic, Gonzalez was laid off from a job in peer services after the results of his federal background check disqualified him from staying in that position.
“I was told, ‘your life experience is the reason we hired you, [but] your life experience is why we’re letting you go,’” he says. “It’s kind of hard for people like me with a criminal background to actually get employed in peer services by all these professional companies.”
Despite the obstacles, Garcia remains optimistic about the value and importance of the service.
“We have a commitment [to] ourselves, our team, our clients, and our community.”
“I think that that vision helps us to maintain a high level of ethics, of integrity, of professionalism and ultimately the intention to support our community in whatever success or development we can,” he says. “For that, we need the collaboration, the assistance and the resources of not just the agency but the community in general and the partners that we have out there.”
If you or someone you know in the Latinx community is in need of substance use disorder support call Puentes at 503-546-9975