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Woman afflicted by drugs makes 2nd chance count


Only one year ago, Yvonne Kelly was a fugitive. Wanted for selling and using crack cocaine, she always hid whenever police cruised through her Laurel neighborhood. Then, one day she let down her guard and answered the front door. It was a county police officer who had come to arrest her.

But instead of going to prison, Ms. Kelly, 40, went to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania. Three weeks ago, she returned home to the 3500 block of Whiskey Bottom Road, to the same troubled streets where she sold drugs and herself, she says.

Her old crowd saw a new woman.

"They say to me, 'Oh you look good. Stay like that. Don't come back out here," said Ms. Kelly. "I guess they are just waiting to see what happens to me. I have enough power in me that I can say no."

How Ms. Kelly, the mother of four, got a chance to go clean instead of spending time in prison is the story of one desperate woman and a concerned neighborhood.

When county police arrested her for violating probation she had received on three earlier drug-dealing convictions, Robert E. Stephens, president of the Concerned Citizens' Association of Laurel, stepped in. He had heard about Ms. Kelly's plight from her aunt and arranged for her to go to the Peniel Residential Treatment center in Johnstown, Pa.

Mr. Stephens, a prominent local businessman, called the judge and persuaded him to let her go to the center. Mr. Stephens even checked up on Ms. Kelly while she struggled with the center's regimen, offered to raise money to keep her there, and ** is now helping her find her own apartment.

"It was like God sent him my way," Ms. Kelly said as her 2-year old daughter, Khadijah, clung to her leg. "He said how proud he is of me. It makes me feel good, and I know I have confidence in myself."

The association, which meets the first Wednesday of every month at the Phelps Senior Center, consists of about 60 Laurel residents who decided two years ago to take on the problems in their neighborhood.

One example of the group's influence is the Grove Street neighborhood, from which it originated.

"It was once an open-air drug market with drive-by shootings," said Jim Collins, spokesman for the Laurel Police Department. "And the residents decided enough was enough. Absolutely nothing goes on there now. Nothing."

The group tutors children, finds jobs for teen-agers and organizes neighborhood cleanup sessions. To end drug dealing, the group found a long-term rehabilitation program to which it has sent more than 14 people, including Ms. Kelly. Group members worked with police and politicians to send many of the other drug dealers to jail.

How did a group of neighbors get crime off their streets?

"It's more common sense than anything else," said Mr. Stephens, who said he had his "fair share" of life on the streets growing up in a poor Arkansas town. "I don't do politics well. And I've always felt the drug problem was a health problem."

Ms. Kelly calls Mr. Stephen her guardian angel. Mr. Stephens, an attorney, said, "You should never forget where you came from, because you could end up back there."

Ms. Kelly said she would have gone to jail if not for members of the association. "I know that I needed help because it was either jail or death for me, and I didn't want jail and I know if I stayed out there somebody would have killed me."

At the Pennsylvania treatment center, which costs $300 a month, Ms. Kelly woke up at 5 a.m. each morning, read the Bible, attended group therapy and did chores.

"I had a lot of anger," she said. "I knew something was wrong, I just couldn't figure out what it was."

She said she has since forsaken her old habits of getting high in the woods all day and shoplifting at the nearby Sears department store. Instead, Ms. Kelly said, she goes to church, reads and takes care of her two youngest children and her oldest son's daughter. On Thursday, she went to get back the driver's license she lost after ignoring a speeding ticket.

"I'll be able to drive and take my kids places. There were times when I just didn't have time for them," said Ms. Kelly, whose mother abandoned her when she was 3. "You don't want them to grow up like you did because it's like a creeping pattern."

She also is trying to regain the trust of her two oldest children by planning trips with them and not staying out late the way she used to.

"I felt like I didn't have a mother," said her daughter Leslie, 19, who works at a T.J. Maxx Store. "When I seen her, she would turn away from me and look like she didn't even know me. I think that program's changed her. We talk a lot now about all the things we could do."

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