Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the places life would take me. Before going back to school six years ago, I spent a significant amount of time homeless, in-and-out of jail, or in institutions as a result of my drug addiction. Although I wouldn’t wish my path upon anyone, I wouldn’t trade my life experiences for the world because it was those years of my life that built the person I am today.
The best part about being at the bottom is that there’s nowhere to go but up. In 2012, I was given the opportunity to participate in the Burlington County Drug Court Program in lieu of a lengthy prison sentence. I took advantage of that opportunity to change my life forever because I didn’t want to die on the streets or in prison, which is exactly where my choices were taking me. I had nothing to lose by trying, so I gave myself a chance. I was willing to do whatever it took to stay clean and do the right thing, just as I was once willing to do whatever it took to get high.
When I went into drug court, I was homeless, unemployed, and in active addiction. When I graduated from drug court in 2014, I had a roof over my head, I had a job, I was back in school, and I was in recovery. I have been clean for more than 7.5 years. Unlike any jail or institution I had ever been in, I came out of drug court as a much better person and better situated than when I went in.
I came to Rutgers Law School because I want to become a public defender, specifically a drug court public defender. There are a lot of improvements that can be made to our criminal justice system, and it starts with attorneys that genuinely care. A client ought to never be treated as a file, but rather as the person they are—someone with unlimited potential. I intend to dedicate the rest of my life to helping others that are in the position I was once in.
I want to help those struggling with a drug addiction get the proper help they need—the same help that saved my life. I truly believe that we are not bad people, but rather good people who made bad decisions; and those bad decisions should not determine our entire future. I know what it feels like to be trapped in active addiction. I know what it feels like to be homeless. I know what it feels like to be hopeless and helpless. I know what it feels like to have no one care and to be just another file on someone’s desk. I know what it feels like to be stuck in the system. And most importantly, I know what it takes to get out. I want to give to back to others what was once so freely given to me—some hope and an opportunity to change for the better.
When you have no help, no resources, and do not understand the system, the process of obtaining identification or government assistance can seem extremely overwhelming and impossible. I remember the last time I got out of jail, I literally had nothing. Not even the clothes I went in with. After being bounced around from county to county, my belongings managed to get "misplaced." I can recall the extremely overwhelming and frustrating process of just trying to obtain a state ID so I could apply for a job—because you can’t get a job without an ID. I couldn’t get an ID without my birth certificate, and I couldn’t get my birth certificate without some kind of ID. Not to mention having to rely on public transportation to get to all these different places. Fortunately, I had someone to help me.
In 2017, I formed a non-profit organization, Oncidium, dedicated to serving the homeless across New Jersey by providing pro bono legal services, employment opportunities, and permanent housing. We also help with obtaining identification and government assistance. At Oncidium, we recognize and understand that most people in such a situation do not have access or know where to go to get the proper help, guidance, and resources; and we seek to provide that necessary help and guidance. It is very easy to get stuck on the streets or in a shelter, especially for someone dealing with drug addiction or mental health issues. After law school, I intend to dedicate more time to my non-profit so we can expand our footprint and help more people.
If there is one thing I learned for sure, nothing in life is impossible! Where there is a will, there is a way. And if you want something bad enough, and you’re willing to put in the time and hard work, there is nothing you can’t achieve. So long as you believe in yourself, and always do the right thing, the sky is the limit.