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Recovery's improbable providence; Man who helped launch Renaissance House is so grateful it was there for his grandson

Don McHenry remembers the time, back in the 1980s, when he walked through a West Seneca field that later would become the Renaissance Campus.

He walked the grounds with Richard J. Gallagher, the man who has helped many local teens tackle their drug and alcohol problems, as Gallagher explained the need for a residential treatment for these teens.

McHenry, as president of the Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services board, later met with contractors and architects, and signed some of the loans for Western New York's crown jewel in residential treatment for young alcohol and drug addicts.

Little did McHenry know that years later, the campus he helped create would help save his own flesh and blood's life.

His grandson, Deric McHenry, now 27, is one of the graduates of the Renaissance Campus.

Both McHenrys, born 48 years apart, are recovering alcoholics who remain thankful that someone was there to help them become sober.

That grandfather-grandson connection is one of the many stories associated with this year's 25th annual Kids Escaping Drugs telethon, which airs from 6 to 11:30 p.m. Saturday on WGRZ-TV.

Don McHenry, now 75, has had three separate careers, and he still works as a drug and alcohol counselor, a licensed interventionist.

He has seen it all, especially in the alcohol and drug world, but he still marvels at the coincidence linking his volunteer work to his grandson's need.

"I call it providential, that this facility would be built on my watch, and years later, when we had a need for Deric's problem, there was a facility for him in Western New York," the elder McHenry said.

"Obviously, he's one of the lucky ones," he added. "It doesn't work for everyone."

Deric McHenry chose his words carefully in talking about what the 62-bed Renaissance Campus has meant to him in his 10 years of sobriety.

"The love of those counselors, and everyone on that campus, it's undeniable," he said. "You have to work very hard to block out the love and care they have for every client."

Deric McHenry was a beer drinker, Old Milwaukee his favorite. His obsession with drinking came from outside the home, as a young boy watching people in the media and popular culture looking relaxed and happy when they were drinking.

"I think I was always hooked," he said.

His first drink came in seventh grade. Then in high school, at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Kenmore West, his drinking got worse, cutting into both his grades and his athletic skills as a hockey goalie and baseball player.

In May 2001, during his junior year, he got extremely drunk at a post-prom party, ending up in the hospital with a concussion, broken collarbone and a blood-alcohol reading of 0.30 percent.

He was powerless over his urge to be intoxicated, to feel numb, to "feel better because I didn't feel anything."

His grandfather and mother, Laurie McHenry, sat him down and insisted he go to a 12-step program or outpatient rehabilitation. He chose rehab, because he didn't want to give up drinking.

In November 2001, he dropped out of high school, was arrested twice for driving with a suspended license and began drinking every day. His basic philosophy then: "I drink when I'm happy. I drink when I'm sad. I might as well drink all the time."

Then his grandfather and mother did an intervention, approaching him as he was sleeping on the couch.

They talked about the good times, all the trips and baseball games and hockey camps and wonderful experiences they had shared, and how important he was to them. Then they discussed his drinking.

"It's going to stop today," the elder McHenry insisted. "We need you to go to this program today."

Deric McHenry was scared. All he knew was how to drink.

But he couldn't say no. He saw his grandfather sit down on the couch and begin to cry. He'd never seen this man cry.

"There's one person, for everyone, no matter what's going on, you want to impress them and make them proud," he said. And that was his grandfather.

So Deric McHenry went to Renaissance House on Jan. 8, 2002, earned his GED and graduated from the treatment program in a year. At 27, he's close to earning his bachelor's degree, works as a house painter and is active with the young people's recovery movement.

He also has been a moving force behind an event called Sober Train, a Saturday night meeting for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

"I'm driven to repay everything that's been given to me," he said, referring to the Renaissance Campus. "They bent over backwards to save somebody who wasn't worth saving."

How about his grandfather, who helped save him both directly, through the intervention, and indirectly, through the Renaissance Campus? "It's just priceless," Deric McHenry said. "There's nothing I can say or do to give him back what he's given to me."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com