MAXWELL:  Mother is clean, sober and going strong

12/2/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Two years ago, Sundea LaRocca, 28, was a client at Operation PAR drug treatment center. She had been addicted to drugs for many years and had committed crimes to help support her habit.

PAR, which lets mothers live with their children at the facility, was a last resort for Sundea. A judge could have sentenced Sundea to a long prison term but decided to give the troubled mother another chance at turning her life around.

From all indications, the judge did the right thing. Today, Sundea works as a waitress at Dockside Dave’s Grill in Madeira Beach. She has worked there for 16 months. “It’s the longest I’ve ever stayed at a job,” she says. Carol Bates, Dockside Dave’s owner, says Sundea is an excellent employee.

Sundea and her 6-year-old son, a first-grader, live in their own apartment. And thanks to the generosity of people who read about her last year in the St. Petersburg Times, she was able to buy a car. Because of the car, she is more involved in her son’s life, driving him and his friends to after-school activities.

Sundea says many people take her accomplishments for granted. But she does not. She occasionally looks back to remind herself of where she came from, of the insanity of drug addiction that nearly took her life.

From birth, Sundea’s life was a nightmare. Her parents were alcoholics and drug addicts, and they fought constantly. They had diagnosed mental health problems, and they divorced when Sundea was 4 years old. She went back and forth between the two households. When she was 14, her mother committed suicide. Later, her father was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Kicked out of three different high schools, she saw her life fall apart, and she tried to forget the pain with drugs, alcohol and an abusive marriage. She turned to crime full time _ forgery, theft, prostitution. She was raped, and danger had become her constant companion.

Salvation came in an ironic twist when a police cruiser tried to pull her over for speeding. She lost control of the car and crashed into a tree. During the crash, her boyfriend lost an eye and was crippled. Sundea was treated at the hospital and taken to jail. Instead of sending her to prison, a judge sent her to PAR.

After being released from PAR, Sundea kept her side of the bargain with the judge. With the emotional and financial help of her grandparents, she slowly developed a positive perspective.

“I have been clean and sober for two-and-a-half years,” Sundea says. “Sometimes, I look back and just say to myself, “One day at a time.’ I have become a better person, a loving daughter, a good mother and a good friend. It’s amazing.”

Indeed, each day is a struggle, a test of her will. But the greatest challenge came on Mother’s Day. That is when her grandmother died. She had cared for Sundea’s son when her granddaughter was in jail or on a binge.

“Losing my grandmother was a terrible time for me,” she says. “It took a lot of strength to pull myself together. But not one time did drugs ever cross my mind. My son, loved ones and friends helped me. My grandmother is gone, but she is my guardian angel. I remember her words before she died: “Be strong. Your son needs his mother. I won’t be here forever.’ ”

Sundea says her grandmother’s personal legacy and her son’s future are the bookends of her life.

“Now more than ever, I’m confident and proud of myself,” she says. “Thanks to my grandmother’s love and advice, my son is my life. This summer, I helped him learn to read, and now he’s making excellent grades.”

Another consequence of her rehabilitation has been renewed ties with her grandfather. During her years of drug addiction, Sundea alienated him. “Now, my grandfather visits and stays overnight every Sunday,” she says. “We’ve never been closer. He loves his grandson and will do anything for us. It’s all because I got my life together.”

The future? Sundea’s immediate goal is return to get a high school diploma. Then, she wants to buy a house. “I want to raise my son in his own home,” she says. “My lifelong dream has been to own my own restaurant _ maybe Italian. My grandmother wanted me to do that.”

The justice system took a chance with Sundea, a drug addict. And two years later, she is proving that, with trust and a little understanding, the legal system and social organizations can help save and repair lives.