- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - For 30 years, Daphne Kraabell weathered the highs and lows of meth addiction.

She’d walk around with $20,000 to $30,000 in her pocket, the earnings of the drug deals that supported her addiction. But she faced prison time twice for those same deals - nearly two years the first time and four years the second time.

Now several years removed from her last prison stint, Kraabell’s life looks much different. She’s in her fifth quarter at Lower Columbia College, where she studies chemical dependency. Kraabell, 51, regularly makes the college’s president’s list, and she hopes to someday become an advocate for people like herself who have struggled with addiction.

But she couldn’t have turned her life around, she said, without the help of a local nonprofit - “Been There, Done That.”

“Without this program, I wouldn’t be here today,” Krabbell said, referring to her successes at college. “I haven’t looked back since, and I don’t ever plan on looking back.”

The nonprofit guides felons returning to Cowlitz County after they finish their jail or prison sentences. Joel Whiteside, 34, has worked with 47 former felons since the organization gained its nonprofit status in 2014.

Whiteside himself served two prison stints - a 28-month sentence when he was 17 years old for assault and a three-year sentence in 2008 for violating a no-contact order.

The organization’s top priority is helping felons develop a release plan that details where they’re going to live and what they’re going to do once they’re released. Whiteside guides them through the process of finding a job or applying for college. In some cases, he helps reunite them with children and other family members.

“I believe if (the felons) don’t have a release plan prior to release, the likelihood of them returning to criminal activity . is a lot more likely,” he said. “History shows that without a plan, individuals will repeat the same mistakes and same choices (they made) prior to incarceration.”

Kraabell had just finished chemical dependency treatment at the time she met Whiteside. She had goals for her life post-prison, and Whiteside helped her accomplish them.

He helped her sign up for financial aid and walked her through the steps of writing her first college paper, she said. When she needed advice, she said Whiteside was only a phone call away.

“When I told him my story, he told me his story, and I knew that there was hope,” she explained. “He’d been to prison, too. He changed his life. He went to college. He got a degree, and he’s this amazing guy.”

“I wanted that,” she added. “I wanted what he had, and he said, ‘You can have it. You can have everything I have.’”

Nate Richardson had a similar story.

Richardson, 43, got out of prison in June 2015 after a 20-month sentence for delivering meth. He said he’s lost count how many times he’s been to jail.

But it was the prison stint that evoked change, he said. He knew the first day of his prison sentence that he wanted something different.

“My neighbor (in prison) was doing life in prison for murder, and … reality set in that this isn’t what I want,” he said.

Before he was incarcerated, he said he had a semi-normal life, punctuated by periods of drug abuse. However, the abuse worsened after a divorce, and he sold meth to pay for his habit. Once incarcerated, he began thinking about life after his release.

“My life started over as soon as I got to prison, not as soon as I got out.”

Richardson met Whiteside at a narcotics anonymous meeting during a work release in April. Through working with Whiteside and going to NA, Richardson said he began working toward getting into LCC, where he plans to study mechanical or civil engineering. Without the help of Whiteside’s organization, he said he likely wouldn’t attempt earning a college degree.

“There would have been a greater chance (of giving up) because of all the road blocks that I ran into on each goal that I set,” he said. “Joel kind of was like, ‘OK, what are we going to do? What’s next?’ And he made sure that I had what I needed to do it.”

Richardson added that it’s been helpful meeting others through the nonprofit who have overcome the same hardships, a sentiment shared by Kraabell.

Kraabell said meeting people with similar pasts has helped her shed the “guilt and shame” she felt after leaving prison.

“You’re clean and sober. You look at yourself, and you think ‘I’ve wasted my life,’” she said. “You’re drowning.”

She credits the organization’s help - particularly that of Whiteside - for helping her move past that.

“What’s going to change people’s lives is ‘Been There, Done That,’” she said. “Because that’s what people need to see and hear is that’s it’s OK - ‘I’ve been. I’ve done that. You’re not the only person.’”

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Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

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