At age 14, Jacquie Brindisi found herself in a swirl of family conflict.
What began as adolescent rebellion worsened as she began skipping school, hanging out with older kids, and smoking marijuana.
In a desperate attempt to control her behavior, Jacquie’s mother contacted the Oneida County Probation Department for pre-PINS (Person in Need of Supervision). The purpose of pre-PINS is to divert youth from family court, and keep them from foster care placement and out of the criminal justice system. But to Jacquie, her mother’s actions felt like a betrayal.
“I felt like my mom didn’t understand me,” she said. “I came from a strict, well-mannered family but I felt like I was suffocating. There was too much on my plate. I was confused and didn’t know who I was anymore.”
That’s when a Kids Oneida caseworker recommended New Horizons.
New Horizons was formed in the early 1990s by a group of group of clergy, local residents, and business people with shared concerns about the alarming increase in drug use, homelessness, prostitution and street activity among young women and girls in the Mohawk Valley.
The program merged with the YWCA Mohawk Valley in 2005 and currently serves runaway and homeless girls ages 16 to 21. Residents receive intensive case management, counseling, support, educational and/or vocational guidance, and life skills education in a safe, stable, health residential environment. The primary focus is to help young women become self-sufficient and transition to independence.
“My mom said it was (New Horizons) or being sent away,” Jacquie recalls. “She was worried I was going to end up somewhere else.”
Although Jacquie entered New Horizons, she continued to act out. She developed a “bad addiction to cocaine” and continued to break rules.
At 15, after spending a year at New Horizons, Jacquie chose to leave the program and return home.
But by age 16, Jacquie’s drug use and truancy had increased and her mother opted to file a full PINS petition.
Jacquie recalls being handcuffed and sent to a juvenile detention facility in Watertown.
“My mother had no control,” she said. “All I really wanted was attention, to be loved, and to know I was okay but the message I was given was ‘there’s no room for your opinion or your side of the story.’”
The experience in juvenile detemtion was traumatic for Jacquie. Once there she says she was strip-searched and every action was regimented.
“They take all of your belongings and give you a two minute phone call,” she said. “I was hysterical every night on the phone with my mother.”
After “about a month or so” in detention, the director of New Horizons visited Jacquie. She offered a second chance but the offer came with a warning: Get serious or you’ll end up in jail.
It was a tremendous relief for Jacquie.
“Her telling me I could come back felt like the best news I had ever gotten,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in Watertown. I knew I wouldn’t survive in that kind of facility.”
When she returned to New Horizons, Jacquie committed to the program.
“I had taken it for granted the first time,” she said. “I was violent against myself. I had ADHD and ADD. I always struggled though I wasn’t dumb. I struggled with depression, anxiety, and drug abuse. I never felt good enough.”
For the first 90 days, Jacquie was on house arrest and probation and dealt with her substance abuse via out-patient drug treatment. She used the time to work on her relationship with her mother and focused on school.
In 2005, Jacquie graduated from Nortre Dame and completed a BOCES cosmetology program. She worked in a salon after high school, tried college then dropped out.
At 21, she had a daughter, an experience she says motivated her to return to school and “do the right thing.”
Now 26, Jacquie is on track to complete a degree in nursing. Her intention is to become a registered nurse specializing in psychiatric nursing. She was recently hired by the YWCA to work as a part-time resident assistant at New Horizons.
The experience has brought her full circle.
“I feel like I went through what I did for a reason,” she said. “I feel like I finally found my purpose. Everything I’ve been through were stepping stones to the woman I’ve become. I understand a lot of where these girls come from. The feelings they feel – they’re lonely, misunderstood, they don’t have anyone in their life – I understand those feelings. These girls need to feel loved and that someone cares about them. A lot of these girls, no one does.”
Jacquie says she is grateful for the help she received from New Horizons and she hopes to extend that support to the young women she now works with.
“I was going down a path of destruction and don’t think I would have made it to 21,” she said. “I didn’t care about what I was putting into my body or who I was with. I thank God for going to New Horizons. I learned life skills, independence, communication skills, and coping skills. I feel like there should be more programs like it.”
Story first published in YWCA Mohawk Valley’s Fall 2013 newsletter.