Leaving their addictions in the dust

Drug Court encourages running - not away from their drug convictions, but for their health.

Published June 2, 2007

SHADY HILLS - Jesse Ronchetti-Otero worked his way to the back of a crowded shelter Thursday evening, balancing an armful of water bottles against his chest. He gave one to each of his new friends and began stretching with them near a picnic table.

His friends varied in age, body type and gender, but their T-shirts showed they were a group. The slogan read "drug runners," with the "drug" crossed out. They had all given up drugs for running.

Members of Pasco County's drug court program ran in a 5K event Thursday evening to celebrate their progression toward living sober lives.

The program, which began in January, is an alternative to jail for those who have committed crimes involving drugs or because of drugs. Admission is granted on a case by case basis, depending on the severity of the crime.

Circuit Court Judge Linda H. Babb, often called the drug court "mom," said she "encouraged" all 115 of Pasco's active drug court members to run in addition to attending mandatory classes one to four times a week. She said she's a strong believer that getting in shape helps all areas of life.

But as the weeks rolled by, the runners were not only strengthening their bodies, they were strengthening their bonds.

So Babb said she thought a 5K run would be a fitting way to honor all of the participants.

"For years, you've been labeled as one 'a' word," addict, Babb said to the participants before they took off from the starting line at Safety Town. "Now you're the other 'a' word - athlete."

Before drug court classes or during breaks, the students run or walk a mile. They have an "honor policy," which means they were in charge of their individual workouts. But in the beginning, some of them quickly noticed that others were saying they had run when they hadn't.

So the students took it upon themselves to enforce the workout. Chris Chojnacki and Ronchetti-Otero said they began keeping a close eye on workouts, since they were two of the first participants and knew everyone. They said they weren't there to get anyone in trouble, but they "monitored" about 20 students in their class.

From there, the bond grew. Now, they share pizzas, stories and rides to class. They visit the Ruby Tuesday's where Ronchetti-Otero, 22, works. They even watch the Discovery Channel - one of Chojnacki's favorites - together.

They said they use each other as a support system so they won't go back to friends who are still doing drugs.

"We've become like a little family," Chojnacki said. "If there are problems outside of class, we call each other and talk about it. It's stopped me from doing all the ---- ---- I was doing."

Running has also helped them focus on their long-term goals.

Ronchetti-Otero said he plans to go back to the University of South Florida in the fall to study business management and financial accounting.

Chojnacki said running has cleared his head and made him realize he wants to continue learning. The 19-year-old welder said he's trying to go to St. Petersburg College to get a degree in business management. His dream is to own a business.

They've also helped each other get back on their feet.

Stewart Kiser, a 50-year-old drug court participant, spent 63 days in jail, and at the time of his release, he had only the clothes on his back. But the other participants gave him clothes, helped him get a job and raised $70 so he could replace his glasses, which had been held together with tape at the nose.

This quick improvement has left Kiser feeling optimistic about their future - which includes running, of course.

"If we all do it as a team, we can do it," he said. "It's a night and day difference."