Drug users in Philippine parish get new lease of life

Church rehab program offers hope, vocational training to 'lost' minority living in fear of President Duterte's war on drugs
Drug users in Philippine parish get new lease of life

Beneficiaries of the church's rehabilitation program for drug users attend a session at Nuestra Señora Dela Candelaria parish in the southern Philippine city of Tacurong. (Photo by Bong Sarmiento/ucanews.com)

Jonathan Padrones has been hooked on illegal narcotics for years but is trying to "redeem" himself with the help of his parish church, he says.

Padrones, 44, said he first tried hydrochloride, a methamphetamine commonly known by its street name "shabu" in the Philippines, out of curiosity when he was in his 20s.

"I ended up getting hooked," he said, adding this soon made him "public enemy number one" in his community.

Padrones said he would spend up to US$20 a day buying shabu. Eventually, he began peddling illegal drugs to sustain his addiction.

When President Rodrigo Duterte launched his "war against drugs" in 2016, Padrones was placed on a police watch-list.

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Instead of mending his ways, he went into hiding. This changed when he heard of a Catholic Church-run program for drug addicts called "Help Care for Change, Hope and Learning."

Father Salvador Robles, the parish priest of Tacurong City in the southern Philippines, said that when Duterte launched his campaign against narcotics, at least 100 people availed themselves of the program.

The government's war on drugs has claimed over 20,000 lives, according to human rights groups. In August 2017, Duterte vowed to press on with the campaign even though soldiers have described it as "an unwinnable war."

Father Robles said the church project employs "a holistic approach that includes spiritual nourishment, behavioral change, skills training and livelihood opportunity."

Both Christian and Muslim experts in this field manage the program, which the priest said "aims to help drug victims get a new lease on life."

He described it as promoting a "therapeutic community approach" that encourages families and community members to support drug abusers by forgiving and accepting them after they have completed the program.

Many of those who signed up for the program surrendered to the police as part of the government's controversial Oplan Tokhang policy.

Tokhang is a portmanteau that loosely translates as "knock appeal," referring to how officers visit the homes of suspected drug users and peddlers and try to convince them to give up their illegal activities.

Father Robles said four groups have finished the church program, which has become a special ministry of Cotabato Archdiocese in Mindanao. It involves a five-day seminar on spirituality and the importance of nourishing key values.

After completing this, participants undergo a six-month "community-based rehabilitation program" that includes a weekly assessment meeting at the parish.

At the end of the rehabilitation period, the beneficiaries, who are known as "empowered brethren," are given starter kits of their choice by government agencies to help them establish new livelihoods.

Padrones asked for a "cosmetic beauty parlor kit." His notoriety in the community has now become a thing of the past, he said.

Mayor Lina Montilla of Tacurong in Sultan Kudarat Province has even praised Padrones for his transformation.

"When you have the will, you can become productive members of society," Montilla said during the graduation rites of the fourth batch of "empowered brethren" on Jan. 11.

Apart from helping to organize community activities, Padrones has begun soliciting donations for poor school children.

"Through these social engagements, I hope to erase the negative stigma caused by my [former] addiction," he told ucanews.com.

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