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Treatment advocate retires; Hudecki departs Kids Escaping Drugs, program for youngsters with addictions

In the late 1980s, a family moved to Western New York from Milwaukee. Their teenage son had been receiving outpatient care for drug addiction, but no organized treatment was available here to help people his age.

Two days before Christmas, he committed suicide.

The boy's family came in contact with JoAnne Hudecki, through her work with an adult-based drug treatment program called the Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services Foundation.

And she knew what needed to be done.

"From that moment on, we realized that we couldn't let another kid die because of this," Hudecki said.

This month, she announced her retirement, almost 25 years after she helped found Kids Escaping Drugs, the region's only individualized drug treatment program for teenagers.

The organization can treat 62 youngsters at its West Seneca campus. Some stay six months, some stay eight months, some longer, if they need it. Teens come from a wide array of backgrounds, from posher suburbs to the inner city.

The treatment involves therapeutically helping these teens to understand drug dependency and give them the tools to fight it. They are subject to strict rules that get looser the longer they stay. In addition to daily chores, they handle much the same course work as in middle and high schools.

Kids Escaping Drugs has grown exponentially since opening the state's first drug treatment center for teens in 1990. The problem has grown, too. Hudecki said some youngsters start as young as sixth and seventh grade, and some get addicted to common yet habit-forming medications like OxyContin, Vicodin and Adderall.

"When we first started, it was alcohol and marijuana," said Hudecki, 64, who will stay on as Kids Escaping Drug's executive director until January. "Right now, the kids are addicted to opiates, prescription drugs, and that leads into heroin. And while alcohol might take 20 years to become addicted, they can get hooked in like three weeks on that stuff, because they pop them like it's candy."

Yet as the problem has changed, so have the methods of Hudecki and her staff. In partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency, they regularly offer a drug drop-off for no longer needed prescription drugs that residents do not want to fall into the wrong hands.

They've also have begun to reach out to the community, through the "Face2Face" program. They visit and stay in contact with 72 middle and high schools around the region, through surrogates or direct intervention. Teens who gets caught with drugs at school might face a shorter suspension if they and their families meet with counselors from Kids Escaping Drugs.

Jon MacSwan, principal of West Seneca High School, says Face2Face has been "exceptional" for students and families at his school.

"When it comes to substance abuse, prior to our involvement with this program, I didn't have a lot of options other than suspending a student," said MacSwan, one of the first people to become involved in the program. "Now we can really give them the support to address these issues before they become major problems for the rest of their lives."

Basically, Hudecki's organization remains a rehabilitation clinic. Julie Cardella of Clarence knows it well. Last year, her young son, who is recovering from heroin addiction, graduated from Kids Escaping Drugs, where he developed a close bond with Hudecki.

"JoAnne knows the kids; she sees them as individuals; she doesn't just see an addict sitting there; she talks to them, gets to know them," Cardella said.

Months after graduation, Cardella and her son encountered Hudecki on the street. Her son was going through some rough times since the death of a close friend.

"We saw JoAnne, and he got this smile on his face and gave her this hug that just gave me hope that he was going to be better again," Cardella said. "He felt so good about her even through those dark times."

Hudecki will remain active in the community but is handing off the day-to-day tasks to spend time with her family.

"It's been a wonderful, wonderful ride," she said. "I can't think of a more rewarding occupation."