City College saves the life of this former addict and ‘grateful felon’

The Channels Opinion Pages | STAFF COLUMN

JON VREELAND, Channels Staff

Not even three years ago, I was speeding up Highway 101 at 3 a.m. in a silver sports car with two surfboards in back and a beat-up acoustic guitar riding shotgun. Black Flag serenaded me as my foot inched towards the floor, hitting 90 mph as I checked my rearview mirror, forgetting the back window had been smashed out with a golf club.

Oh yeah, and the car and everything in it was stolen.

I “found” the car in Huntington Beach, where I was raised. When the California Highway Patrol on Las Positas drive pulled me over that night for making an illegal U-turn, I had already noticed Santa Barbara’s similarities to home. Like Huntington Beach, Santa Barbara had sandy beaches and weather most people only dream of, and drunken nightlife flourished on the same street the pier is on, with places to eat, drink and watch sports all while looking out to the ocean.

But after a few weeks in jail, which required a few runs to the courthouse, I knew Santa Barbara’s legal systems, including probation, were astounding compared to Huntington Beach and Orange County’s.

I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. I believe I was born this way, and the judge in Santa Barbara concurred after taking one look at my long record of drug and alcohol abuse, and my shadowed eyes on my sad face. He was keen to one very important aspect of it all, sober people don’t steal cars.

I had been arrested over a dozen times back home simply for being a drug addict. I would beg the judge to let me do intense drug programs and sober livings so I could continue with school and work instead of rotting in jail with no recovery, no counseling, forcing me to drop my classes and quit my job.

But the answer was always no.

I staggered in and out of jail and society. Getting arrested over and over again. I was looking for anything to turn myself around; I was so desperate. Then there it was, a silver gift from God, purring quietly in the middle of the street with the door open and the engine running. It practically had a sign on it that said, “Drive me Jon. Let’s get the hell out of here! Come on buddy fresh start! Let’s go come on!”

And I did.

And it is true. I could not have been busted in a better place. I mean even the jail was okay. At the end of 2013 I left the Santa Barbara Honor Farm in pretty good shape and a nice tan. Plus I found out about City College while I was still in jail, along with numerous sober livings and for once, I was leaving jail with a solid plan. My public defender helped me with the judge’s decision on letting me out of jail three months early to get me into treatment.

Greg Baranoff, a City College financial aid advisor, gave me instructions on where to enroll at the Alice Schott Center, one block from my court appointed sober living home. After a couple of appointments I was enrolled in City College and Extended Opportunities Program and Services. My fear of being locked up for no good reason was hastily fading.

It is almost three years later and I have not been to jail since. And the only officer I have come in contact with is my probation officer, who does nothing but smile and congratulate me for my accomplishments and endeavors.

It was City College employees like Baranoff, who was there to reel me in and tell me I am worth going back to school to pursue my dreams. And when classes and life get tough, people like Chelsea Lancaster, my guidance counselor at Extended Opportunities Program and Services, are there to tell me to keep going.

Regardless of what anyone says, a person who voluntarily sticks themself with dirty needles full of deadly poisons is not what society, and myself, deems as “the norm.” It is obvious this person might need a little extra empathy at times, or just someone to talk to when life gets rough. I didn’t have that back home in Orange County from judges, probation officers, or the colleges I had been to.

I was branded a burden to society, a statistic and a parade of booking numbers. And like a lot of places, chemical dependency is considered a crime.

I stumbled on a place where the City College is nicer than most universities. Where various shades of color walk with each other and it’s okay, and the courts and probation treat people under the nasty hex of addiction like human beings, not hopeless criminals. I can be a grateful felon in a place that wants to keep me out of jail, and supports me in getting the best education I possibly can.

And not because I am white.