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Battling back from drugs Recent graduate of Stepping Stones recalls living double life as her addiction to drugs grew deeper

She cut her teeth on Bud Light, Newport cigarettes and marijuana, before sampling a full smorgasbord of drugs: cocaine, heroin and all sorts of pills like OxyContin and Loritab.

Whatever she could get her hands on.

Yahaira Perez believed the drugs filled up the emptiness she felt, the hollow feeling deep inside her.

As a younger teen, she did what many drug addicts do. She lived a double life, as a softball player, cheerleader and A student -- while drinking and smoking marijuana as an eighth-grader.

Things got worse in high school. She stole from her parents. Her school record included slipping grades, detention, in-school suspension and a fight with another girl. She was arrested twice on drug possession charges.

Yahaira knows where she was headed, and it wasn't toward a top college.

"I would be dead, or using, or in jail," she said. "It's really true."

Now, at 17, Yahaira (pronounced Ja-hi-da) is clean, a recent graduate of Stepping Stones on the Renaissance Campus, Western New York's long-term residential treatment program for teens addicted to drugs and alcohol.

She's a poised, attractive young woman who tells her story almost as if she's talking about another person.

In her rear-view mirror, she can see the old Yahaira.

"I see a real lonely, confused, manipulative and de-focused person," she said, while sitting on a couch inside Stepping Stones earlier this week. "I was a horrible person. I was so inconsiderate. I've changed so much."

She'll be one of the success stories featured in the 19th annual Kids Escaping Drugs telethon, on WGRZ Channel 2, from 4 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday [with a one-hour break from 8 to 9 p.m. for the airing of "The West Wing"].

All proceeds will benefit the Renaissance Campus, a 62-bed facility in West Seneca. Last year's telethon raised $604,000.

"We live in a community that cares about its kids," said Richard J. Gallagher, executive director of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services. "And that's special."

Yahaira was an eighth-grader in Buffalo when she began smoking and drinking. She did it to fill the void inside her, and for the acceptance and popularity. "People thought I was cool, because I was in eighth grade hanging out with older people," she said. "People looked up to me."

Her family moved to Niagara County. As a 10th-grader at Niagara Wheatfield High School, she met a boy who introduced her to all kinds of painkillers. Her addiction trumped all the morals and values her parents had taught her.

"At one point, I stole my mother's debit card and found out her PIN number," she said. "I wasn't just taking $20 or $40. I was taking hundreds."

Once again, she led a double life, hiding her addiction from those who cared about her.

One day, while on in-school suspension in 10th grade, she got caught with 2 1/2 Loritab pills wrapped up in a magazine. Then last fall, while under the influence, she got into a fight in school, and pills were found in her purse. This time, to avoid jail, she was sent to Stepping Stones on Dec. 6.

Her biggest temptation there was a visit from her father, who also was using at the time. He's now in recovery, too.

"He was a reminder of me when I was under the influence," she said. "He was out there, using, and I was in here, getting clean. I felt jealous."

But Yahaira learned how to fight back. She learned that she has an addictive personality. She learned how to reach out and ask for help. And she learned it's her choice how to use the 24 hours of life she's given every day. The program worked miracles for her, she said.

"It saved my life. Today, I'm grateful for everything I have, for every lesson I've been taught. Before, I expected everything to be put on a silver platter for me."

Yahaira, who returned to school this week at West Seneca West High School, wants to be a doctor, perhaps in the Peace Corps.

She doesn't know what the future holds, or where she'll be. Except for one time of the year.

"Every year, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, they have alumni come back [to Stepping Stones] for the girls and do a gratitude group.

"I'm definitely going to be here."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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