MAXWELL: A new life for the holidays

12/24/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If we do not have a regular beat, most journalists are hit-and-run agents. We write about people and issues and rarely return to them.

Sometimes, however, a story is so compelling in its turnabout that we must revisit it.

Such is the case for me and Sundea LaRocca, a former drug addict I wrote about last year. Then, she and her 4-year-old son were residents of a drug rehabilitation facility in Largo that permits mothers to retain custody of their children during treatment.

Sundea, 27, acknowledges that prior to treatment, she was imprisoned by the “insanity” of her drug habit.

How she fell into the “insanity” is a tale unto itself. From her birth, her home life was dysfunctional. Her parents fought constantly, drank excessively and used drugs. They had diagnosed mental health problems, and they divorced when Sundea was 4 years old. During the next 10 years, she went back and forth between the two households. Despite the bad circumstances, she made excellent grades and was a standout athlete.

When Sundea was 14, her mother committed suicide. Everything fell apart: Her grades dropped, and she started drinking and smoking pot. At 16, she graduated to cocaine and began selling it to schoolmates and whoever else would buy. She got into fights and was arrested for assault and battery and placed on house arrest. She was kicked out of three high schools and finally dropped out.

She married at 19, entering what she calls an “abusive relationship that included drug use.” After becoming pregnant, she stopped smoking cigarettes, drinking and selling drugs. Three months after her son was born, however, her husband was sent to prison. Shortly afterward, her father was sent to federal prison for 20 years.

Sundea started using and selling drugs again. “To get cocaine, I started spending every dollar I made working and then wrote bad checks and started a crime spree,” she says. “I was insane and ended up in jail 10 times.”

Her arrests included grand theft, forgery and possession of drug paraphernalia. She turned to prostitution. She was raped, and her life was in constant danger. She neglected her son, and relatives had to take him in.

She hit rock bottom on the night that a police cruiser tried to pull her over in her speeding car. She lost control of the car and hit a tree. During the wreck, her boyfriend lost an eye and mobility in his right leg. Sundea was treated at the hospital and taken to jail. Instead of giving Sundea a long sentence, an empathetic judge sent her to PAR Village, a drug treatment facility, where her son came to live with her.

“PAR gave me the opportunity to raise my child,” she says. “I have a clean slate and hope for the future. I now have stability in my life. PAR gave me structure and taught me responsibility.”

Today, Sundea is drug-free. She rents an apartment in Largo and for the last six months has waited tables at Dockside Dave’s Grill in Madeira Beach. “My greatest accomplishment is being a loving parent to my son,” she says. “The best thing is when my little boy comes running up to me and hugs and kisses me and tells me, “I love you, Mommy.’ We cook together, play, watch movies, go to the park and eat out. He brings so much joy to my life.”

Sundea says that being drug-free has transformed her in every way: “I have found unbelievable peace within myself. I have learned to accept each day as a blessing because no matter how bad it is, getting high is not an option. I have accepted life on life’s terms. Doors are opening. I used to make excuses. Nobody will hire me. I’m a convicted felon. Well, I was wrong.”

Indeed, Sundea, whose dream is to own a restaurant, was wrong. Carol Bates, owner of Dockside Dave’s, hired Sundea without reservations after one meeting. At first, Sundea did not tell Carol about her old drug problem and criminal past. As an employer, Carol uses the Internet to check the backgrounds of potential employees. Even after learning about Sundea’s felonious past, Carol hired her.

“I saw Sundea’s heart the first day I met her,” Carol says. “She said that she wanted to tell me about her past, but it was hard for her. I knew that Sundea was a good person, and I gave her a chance. And when I met her son, well, I haven’t regretted hiring her. She is an awesome waitress. Dockside Dave’s is a special restaurant.

“I want the girls to share their personalities with the customers. I let them sit with the customers and talk with them. I want them to be themselves. Sundea shares and talks, and she is wonderful. Her honesty is beyond reproach. I couldn’t ask anything more from a better employee. She does everything. She is in the cash drawer with all of us. She’s part of the family. Everyone loves her.”

Last year, Sundea and her son spent the Christmas holiday season in the drug-treatment facility. This year, they have their own Christmas tree in their own apartment. Family and friends will come over to enjoy a home-cooked meal.

“This year, I wanted to have an extra special Christmas for my son,” she says. “I realized that nothing material could ever replace the life I’m giving my son by remaining clean and sober. My son needs me, and I must always be there for him. We all make choices in life. Sometimes we choose right, and sometimes we choose wrong. I finally made some right choices. I’m becoming a great mom.”

Christmas will be a special day and the fall will bring another special step for her son. He’ll be entering the first grade. Sundea is as excited as her son but also knows she’ll need to drive him and his friends to and from after-school activities on her days off. That could be a problem, because she does not now own a car. In fact, she says her toughest and most humbling task is asking friends to drive her to and from work. She is determined to change that. Although she often has trouble making ends met on a waitress wages, her immediate goal is to save money for a car.

In this holiday season, Sundea approaches every new challenge with hope.