‘Like a family’: Sí Se Puede, an addiction recovery beacon in Watsonville, looks to meet expanding need

Drawings of the Si Se Puede Behavioral Health Center that has had nearly half of its $12 million goal raised thus far.
(Via Encompass)

For three decades, a single-story house — the state’s first bilingual recovery program of its kind — that sits on a quiet street in the middle of Watsonville has helped men heal their addictions. Many have gone on to successful lives and careers; others couldn’t outrun their demons. But those who have dedicated their lives to creating a brotherhood of recovery at the Sí Se Puede residential treatment program realize they are making a significant difference for the Latino population of South County.

It took Jorge Sanchez three tries to kick the heroin addiction he acquired while working as a laborer picking lettuce in the fields of Watsonville in the late 1980s.

“That labor is so hard, you have to be on something,” Sanchez says, “and at that time half the crew I was working with was using heroin.”

Jorge Sanchez has been with Si Se Puede since the very beginning.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sanchez, now 35 years sober, is one of the survivors. Someone who was lucky enough to navigate the system and brave enough to conquer his demons — even if it took three attempts.

On this day he’s leading his guests on a tour through a 1940s-era Spanish-style bungalow, with spartan bunk beds and stucco falling off the walls, that sits off a quiet, rural street in the heart of Watsonville.

It is the place that became Sanchez’s own home in sobriety, a place where, as manager of the inpatient program for three decades, he has been able to help pass on the gift of recovery to Latino men just like himself.

It’s called Sí Se Puede, or “Yes, you can!”

The importance of that sentiment can’t be understated in a Latino culture that doesn’t often take a direct approach to substance abuse issues — even at a time when data shows the need has never been greater. It’s why Sí Se Puede, which began serving nearly 200 clients per year in 1991, is working toward an ambitious expansion that will increase residential capacity by 30%.

“We’re seeing an alarming increase in need with the Latinx community,” says Monica Martinez, executive director of Encompass Community Services, Santa Cruz County’s largest provider of behavioral health support, which combines both mental health and addiction treatment.

“These are our essential workers, often doing difficult labor,” she continues. “Our economy and community are relying on them. At the same time, the economic stressors have been there, and the supports haven’t.”

Monica Martinez
Monica Martinez is helping lead the $12 million in fund-raising to upgrade the South County behavioral health presence of Encompass Community Services.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Seeking SUD (substance use disorder) treatment is difficult in this country for anyone who isn’t rich — but the Latino population in places like Watsonville faces extra challenges: A higher rate of poverty means a higher rate of people who are uninsured. Bilingual programs are virtually nonexistent. Further, a cultural stigma prevents many from getting the help they desperately need.

The rate of accidental drug-related deaths in Santa Cruz County in the Latinx community more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, according to an annual report by the coroner’s office. The prevalence of the highly toxic drug fentanyl, which has only increased into 2022, is believed to be a major contributor to the rise in overdose deaths.

While there has been a big win countywide in making recovery services available to the community’s neediest, use of them by those in need is another story.

There is good news, Martinez says, in that Santa Cruz County fought to get SUD treatment covered by Medi-Cal benefits. The bad news is summarized in a recent county review of Medi-Cal data that showed while Latinos make up the majority of Medi-Cal beneficiaries in the county (48.9%), they represent less than a quarter (22.6%) of those currently accessing SUD services.

“There’s absolutely an issue with stigma in the Latinx culture,” Martinez says.

Sanchez echoes that sentiment, attributing it to a lack of available information and safe spaces for it to be shared.

It is what makes places like Sí Se Puede — the state’s first bilingual recovery house of its kind — such a beacon. And it’s why, as more people decide to tackle their demons, the number of places like it, and the square footage of the single-story, 23-resident Sí Se Puede house itself, must itself grow.

The planned Si Se Puede Behavioral Center in Watsonville.
(Via Encompass)

Encompass runs Sí Se Puede and is halfway through an ambitious capital-raising effort — $5.5 million of the $12 million goal has been raised — to build a new modern facility with additional behavioral health and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) services within its facility. The new Sí Se Puede Behavioral Health Center will also increase the number of South County patients who receive outpatient services by approximately 30%.

That would happen in conjunction with a 72-unit affordable housing project being built by MidPen Housing adjacent to the lot that sits atop a hill on Miles Lane. If the fundraising goes well, the new Sí Se Puede could break ground as early as next year.

If they build it, will more come? Martinez says people like Sanchez, whom she calls “like the mayor of Watsonville,” are the key. Earning trust, she says, requires a safe, culturally appropriate environment that exudes unconditional love, a spirit of family and zero judgment.

They need to know folks like Jorge Sanchez will be there to greet them.

“They need to know folks like Jorge Sanchez will be there to greet them,” she says. “They can join this community where healing feels possible. Sí Se Puede really is like a family.”

‘I found community with other men’

Adrian Ruiz was 25 with two rehab stints under his belt when his hunger for an opioid high came raging back. First it was Oxycontin and soon thereafter back to a regular heroin habit.

He arrived in 2016 at Sí Se Puede with a harsh dose of reality from his mom, who had spent some time working with the program: (1) If it doesn’t work this time, you are on your own; (2) If it does work, you can’t go back to your hometown of Turlock, where trouble constantly crept back up.

The Ruiz family: From right to left, Adrian, his mom Laura, his dad Patrick, his brother Gabriel and his sister Sophia.
(Courtesy Adrian Ruiz.)

Ruiz said he was ready to accept the fact that he needed a complete environmental overhaul if he was going to finally conquer his genetically inherited disease. His mom had battled addiction when he was a young boy. His father was a lifelong alcoholic, on his way to dying from liver disease at age 57.

Ruiz had never been in a treatment facility just for men and was surprised by the intensity and vulnerability he was suddenly witnessing.

“I had never really formed a relationship in my sober life with men, like an intimate connection where you see that a man can cry, a man can vocalize what’s going on with him,” he said. “Understanding what being a man is from your father and your father’s father and all this conditioning of what a man ought to be and the kinds of pressures that come even before the addiction. In that space, I found community with other men.”

Sanchez said there are those who enter the front doors that they immediately know will be successful. There is certain motivation in their eyes, and it comes through in the way they listen. It’s why he told Ruiz early on that he thought he could one day be the teacher rather than the student.

“I thought he was messing with me at first,” Ruiz said. “But he convinced me he wasn’t joking.”

Adrian Ruiz.

It began a path toward the college education he had pushed aside as his addiction took hold. With clear eyes and newfound motivation, Ruiz suddenly found himself with two associate’s degrees from Cabrillo College, headed for a bachelor’s at San Jose State.

He’s got two semesters left, but has already found full-time work as a counselor for Encompass.

“Sí Se Puede saved my life, it really did,” he said. “A lot of it was my cooperation, but a lot of it was also the counselors having patience with me, and men pulling me aside and checking in on me, asking me how I was doing. It was learning how to take off the masks that I’ve worn in so many situations in my life and learn how to find out who is Adrian?”

A place to readjust to society

Danny Contreras remembers the day vividly. He hopped out of the vehicle at the Sí Se Puede house off Miles Lane on June 26, 2011, and had only one thought in mind: getting his life back.

He had been driven directly from Soledad State Prison after serving 12 years on what originated as a murder charge with gang enhancements in the stabbing death of another teen at age 17.

Danny Contreras keeps the vestiges of his past, when he was charged with murder, close by.

Contreras didn’t need the substance abuse services Sí Se Puede provides in the same way most clients do. He didn’t know it yet, but he was beginning his training to become one of the county’s main providers of drug addiction services.

At that moment, 30 years of age and just returning to society, what Contreras really needed was a supportive foothold back into the real world. A place to continue the second chance he had been forming a foundation for the past decade in prison by counseling and mentoring other inmates and earning an associate’s degree.

“I just needed meals, a place to lay my head and a supportive environment,” he said. “I needed a place to learn how to readjust to society.”

One of the graduates of the program who returned to encourage the current crop taught him how to drive. A counselor, who had also formerly been incarcerated, knew of Contreras’ ambitions and signed him up for a college program to earn his bachelor’s degree. A former police chief who had met Contreras during a visit to Soledad years earlier sought him out to speak to at-risk kids at Watsonville High and spread his story of change far and wide.

The most important referral — the one that has kept him in Santa Cruz County for 11 years now — came from a psychiatric evaluation he received upon arrival. Contreras had roots in Salinas and Paso Robles, but part of his parole condition was that he couldn’t enter Monterey or San Luis Obispo counties. Watsonville was the best, closest option, which is how he ended up at Sí Se Puede.

Danny Contreras holding his son Ray at the Watsonville vigil on Sunday, Sept. 5.
Danny Contreras has become a community leader after spending 12 years in prison. Here he speaks at the vigil for the boy stabbed and killed at Aptos High, while holding his baby son Ray.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The written evaluation, which would be used to determine whether Contreras would be ping-ponged around the system to another location, noted that he’d be a highly valuable asset to the Watsonville community. His parole officer agreed and Contreras’ post-Sí Se Puede fate was sealed.

Fortunately, he says, he was already convinced he was in the right place. He began taking classes at Cabrillo for his drug and alcohol counseling certification, worked on his BA in psychology virtually, worked on his public speaking skills with groups of kids as often as he could and eventually got his big break when Housing Matters (then known as the Homeless Services Center) hired him as a case manager in 2012.

Danny Contreras used Cabrillo as a springboard to success.

A decade later, Contreras works for the County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency as the Health Services Manager and is helping to start a residential recovery program for youth in Hollister (with plans for a Watsonville expansion).

He also mentors at-risk youth in local high schools via a cultural, holistic approach known as Joven Noble and recently became an independent forensic gang expert via a unique Loyola Law School program.

Contreras rattles off the names of those he met during his four-month stay with gratitude. Those who have helped show him the way or watched him walk his wife down the aisle. As he fought and clawed his way back into society as an ex-con with important things to say, Contreras continued to use the Sí Se Puede address for important correspondences.

“It always felt like home,” he said. “The support I got from Sí Se Puede was pretty foundational.”

A fight against stigma

As he walks his guests around the Sí Se Puede campus, it seems as though Jorge Sanchez hasn’t forgotten a single person he’s come in contact with over three decades.

The two Jorges, Sanchez and Gutierrez, stand in front of the water tower that still exists in the garden on Miles Lane.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There are many like Contreras and Ruiz, who came in with purpose and have turned their lives around — often paying it forward as counselors. Many own houses, businesses and college degrees. They go on nice vacations.

They are getting to savor the joy of watching their grandchildren run around the park. He has seen three generations of men from a single family come through the program — each one building upon the other’s success and tackling their genetic demons.

He has also seen far too many that have passed on, some who couldn’t kick their habit and relapsed, but many more who had already done too much damage to their bodies by the time they were able to get clean at Sí Se Puede.

Jorge Sanchez runs through the list of Si Se Puede graduates.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There is a wall in one of the community rooms with plaques honoring the many hundreds of graduates of the program. Sanchez, along with fellow program manager Jorge Gutierrez, run down the names nostalgically and tragically.

They talk about the rival gang members who entered the program at similar times and not just found common ground in beating addiction, but are still friends to this day. They note the person who got through the program and built themselves a nice life — only to see it cut short by the damage absorbed by their body through years of addiction.

Jorge Sanchez shows one of the modest rooms clients stay in at Si Se Puede.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The biggest change in recent years has been a far greater need to include behavioral health services, largely a byproduct of a greater understanding that addiction and mental health issues often overlap. It’s why the new-and-expanded campus will emphasize services for that co-occurrence.

But that still little-understood co-occurrence can make the issue of stigma in the Latino culture even more challenging, Sanchez admits. While alcoholism that afflicts multiple generations of a family has raised awareness of a genetic predisposition — and often removes guilt or shame — mental health is still far less understood in Latino culture.

“We had a family that wanted to give their son a blood transfusion. They thought if you changed out his blood, he would be cured,” he said. “That was the mentality.”

Sanchez says it comes down to education, which got much more difficult during the prime lockdown months of COVID-19 and in the months afterward. Sí Se Puede held weekly sessions for families before that on topics such as co-dependency, domestic violence, positive parenting and other key under-discussed topics.

One of the outdoor patio gathering spaces where clients receive counseling at Si Se Puede.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Getting the pre-COVID momentum back will take time, Sanchez knows. Breaking ground on a new facility should give an exciting jolt. For now he’ll take comfort in the success stories that carry him into his fourth decade at Sí Se Puede, especially the ones that keep the cycle of goodness churning, like Ruiz.

“You can just tell a client that wants to get involved and give back to the community,” Sanchez said.

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