On Christmas Day, Evan Bontrager sat at his sister’s dinner table, cutting chocolates to share with his family. He bought a box at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and wanted to make sure everyone tastes them.
He drank soda water, which he loves. Christmas carols played in the background as her family tasted chocolate and told jokes. He looked around the table, full of gratitude, he said.
This Christmas was special.
For many, the start and end of a year means setting goals and celebrating accomplishments. This year, 32-year-old Evan had some big milestones to celebrate: seven months spent staying sober and reconnecting with his family.
After years of missing family reunions due to his family’s drug and alcohol addiction, he was finally back among his loved ones.
“I was just like, I’m here right now and things are going well,” he said.
He credits his continued recovery to the Denver Rescue Mission’s New Life program, a project that since 1994 has helped men struggling with drug addiction and homelessness get back on their feet.
Last year 36 men graduated. In 2020, the number was almost double that of 62 graduates. COVID forced the program to downsize, and in February 2021, buildings where the program is hosted were flooded with burst pipes, resulting in fewer attendees when the men had to move to a nearby hotel. Despite these problems, the men come out of the program recovering and are housed.
The results speak for themselves: 86% of graduates are sober and housed one year after completing the program.
“I think people think you can beat addiction on your own. As if everything depends on your will, ”said Jonathan Soweidy, director of residential programs at the Mission. “But it’s really about relationships and letting people come in and connect.”
Years of fighting drug addiction
Evan joined the program after being arrested for breaking and entering in Fort Collins last June. He was sleeping in an abandoned fraternity house.
“Oh, that was so embarrassing,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t sleep in a fraternity house if I wasn’t, you know, drugged or in dire straits.”
He had been drinking and using drugs since college at the time. He grew up in Limon, which he said was boring as a teenager, and got into trouble for shoplifting and vandalism in high school.
In 2008, when he went to college, he started drinking. He thought it was a harmless party. It escalated in him using several drugs, including heroin. He slowly realized that he felt like he needed drugs and alcohol to get through his days.
“Ultimately it was like, ‘oh, it’s because you’re trying to get out of the feelings you’re having,’” he said. “So drown him with alcohol.”
He dropped out of college the following year and began to surf the couch or find cheap accommodation to rent. He spent weeks and sometimes months without housing. He tried every drug he could get his hands on and struggled to keep a job.
His parents, Ellie and Warren Bontrager, quickly realized that bailing him out or giving him money and a place to stay allowed him to use drugs and alcohol.
“We would try to minimize the damage though,” Warren said. “I was driving five hours to find something he, you know, left behind, pick it up and put it in our house, again, until he… get out of jail and start over.” ”
The Bontragers were thrilled when their son decided to join the New Life program. But they maintained cautious optimism. They say they are praying for him to stay the course.
“It’s just a day-to-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute struggle for these guys,” said Ellie Bontrager. “It’s just a very, very difficult thing for them and their families.”
The Bontragers are a religious family. Evan said his faith played a role in his recovery. When he was a baby, his parents took him to the pastor to pray for him. The pastor had a prophecy for Bontrager’s boy.
“And is that he’s going to struggle and bring you a lot of heartache as a youngster,” said Ellie, “but he’s going to get the win over that.”
The Bontragers are hopeful that Evan’s New Life program and Evan’s commitment will finally help him overcome his addiction.
Evan took classes, received therapy, and even joined a running club as part of the program. His success meant he could stay offsite for Christmas. For weeks he helped plan the gathering at his sister’s house in Glenwood Springs. He began giving gifts to family members and asking his case manager in the program for a blank slip or permission to exit the site.
“I was actually really excited for him because he’s a really caring guy,” said Kelsea Nelson, Evan’s case manager. “It’s really obvious when you talk to him that he cares a lot about people and that he cares about his family. And so I was thrilled that he reached that other goal or step in improving his relationships. with his family. “
Nelson spoke with Evan about the triggers that sometimes come with seeing family, and advised him to seek help if he was struggling with temptation on the trip.
He faced temptation. On his way to his sister, Evan said he noticed every pottery store, and in her house there was alcohol. Some in the form of small chocolates filled with liquor.
“And so my thought was like, ‘Hey, you can probably go eat some of these. They look good. Like they don’t blitz you or anything, ”he thought.
But he resisted. He did not drink or use drugs during the trip. He said it was easier this time, even though his brain had told him otherwise.
“I had nothing to hide or conceal, so I didn’t have to worry about my story,” he said. “Be yourself, tell the truth, this is the easiest way to do it.”
Evan is on track to graduate from the New Life program this month. Her next step is to get her license back and then find a job. He can stay in the Denver Rescue Missions residential accommodation called The Crossing until he has enough money for his own place.
He is interested in energy sustainability and hopes to one day take a training course to work on wind farms. Evan also wants to help people and travel the country. He wants to see what lies beyond Colorado.
“I want something that I can be proud of,” he said. “I can’t wait to live a normal life and not need something to change how I feel or make me feel better, you know? I can live without this hook, you know, without this addiction to something else.