Erin Dale, a probation officer in Cobb County, Georgia’s juvenile drug court, has never come across a kid who started using marijuna as young as Zach Dykes.
“Seven years old,” Dale said. “Pre-teen, like 11 or 12, is the earliest I’d seen before Zach.”
Zach, 17, is currently in the Cobb County, Ga. Juvenile drug court program. Up until this April, the Hillgrove High School senior had smoked marijuana on and off – mostly on – since he was 7. He’s been locked up on drug charges and probation violation four times.
But you just can’t help but like Zach, Dale said, particularly now that he’s showing drive and dedication to accomplishing some things in his life.
“He’s always wanted to do right and he’s always honest and takes responsibility for his situation,” Dale said. “That is not usually the case with kids we see. Most will do whatever they can to get away with something, but not Zach.
“Until about a year ago, though, he was kind of floating around wanting to get through with probation and school, but something clicked. Since then, he’s raised his grades high enough to play football and he’s putting things in motion to do things with his life.”
Both Dale and Scott Merritt, a certified substance abuse counselor who has worked with Zach the last year or so, hope Zach stays focused on staying clean as opposed to being a caretaker of his older brother, Robbie, 23.
Robbie was released from prison earlier this month after serving 18 months on a drug conviction. Robbie says seeing Zach clean and sober is one of the greatest gifts he’s even been given. Both talk about helping the other stay clean. That sounds good, Merritt said, but it can become a not-so-good approach.
“It’s possible to feed off each other in a good way,” he said. “But when first opportunity comes along to use, I just don’t know Robbie well enough to know where he is in his recovery. I think where Zach is, he’s strong enough to make a good decision and not go down that path. But I’m trying to get through to him that he can’t be responsible for his brother’s sobriety. He can’t protect him and make his decisions.”
Added Dale: “Zach thinks his brother coming home is a positive, and we all hope it is.”
For all teenage recovering addicts, the holiday season can be tricky.
“A lot of people think it’s a great time for kids, and it can be,” Merritt said. “But it’s also just as stressful for kids as it adults. They experience the stress their parents are under and often have just finished some end-of-semester exams. And with school out, the structure is missing and the opportunity to use increases.”
Dale thinks Christmas will be a good time for Zach, though.
“How Christmas helps or hurts is a case-by-case thing. Sometimes, the holiday is a trigger for bad memories or just a trigger to get together with the wrong people and use,” she said. “But a lot of time, when families get together and take the time to see how much improvement there has been with someone like Zach, it can be a real positive reinforcement for all the hard work.”
No one is 100 percent sure what Christmas in the Dykes’ house will be like this year.
But Zach Dykes, 17, a senior at metro Atlanta’s Hillgrove High School, is pretty sure it’ll be better than last year’s. It almost has to be.
Zach was in the Cobb County Youth Detention Center on drug charges until Christmas Eve last year. His older brother, Robbie, 23, was in prison, serving an 18-month prison sentence on a drug conviction.
Both are home now. Both are clean. But neither is out of the woods when it comes to possible relapses. And that realization is the best thing going for them.
“I’ve been using weed for a long, long time, but have been clean since April 13,” Zach said. “My resolution is to keep this momentum going so I can get into a college. Being clean is now a habit and that makes it easier. Used to, staying high was my habit. My new habit is doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
In some aspects, Christmas was just another day to get high, Zach said. Last Christmas though, was perhaps the worst, Zach said.
“I was in jail on Christmas Eve last year,” he said. “It just made me want to cry. Not because it was that hard on me, but because my mom knew where I was. I was letting my parents down, letting a lot of people down.”
Zach had been in jail for violating his probation, stemming from marijuana possession charges.
As bad as that memory is, Christmas still is a time that Zach looks forward to. There are few memories of what he calls a normal, or idyllic Christmas. But Zach thinks this year’s might be one that is worth remembering.
“All the family is going to be there and it’s going to be nothing like last year,” he said. “There’s so much to have cheer about right now.”
But the constant smile on Zach’s face and the quick wit he wields to those who have unquestioned authority over his life -- he’s considered the class clown in juvenile court, in a good way -- belies the reality of the life he’s lived.
Zach said he started smoking marijuana at 7 years old. Robbie was 12 at the time and they’d smoke together. It’s pretty much the only life he remembers.
Those who know Zach’s history – his probation officer, drug counselor and case manager – barely blink an eye when the fact comes up that Zach started smoking pot before most kids know there is such a thing.
“It is unheard of to be using at 7 years old,” said his probation officer, Erin Dale. “But apparently, he was.”
And not just once or twice.
“I used to stay high pretty much 24-7,” Zach said. "I didn’t go to school much. My parents hit a point where they couldn't do anything and I felt like I couldn’t do anything, which was leading to more drugs.”
“Now, I want to be a good role model for my older brother. He was in prison the last 18 months on drug charges and he used to be a role model to me, even if he wasn’t the best role model. Now, I want to be that good role model for him. To have my big brother look up to me would make me feel good by being that leader.”
Robbie, who was released from prison earlier this month, says he welcomes whatever it takes for Zach to stay motivated and clean.
“Words can’t explain how proud I am of him,” he said. “It is such a relief. He was going through a real hard time when I was sent away. It seemed like I was getting a letter every other week saying he was back in jail.
“I’ve told him plenty of times that I didn’t want him to go through what I’d gone through. I don’t want anyone to, but especially him, as close as we are.”
Robbie sounds as excited about Christmas as Zach.
“I think it’s going to be a storybook one,” he said. “It will be my first Christmas home in three or four years. I haven’t seen any of my out-of-state family in years.
“Used to, we’d always get up and have Christmas morning, then drive up to Tennessee to see family. That’s the plan for this year.”
It doesn’t seem to bother Robbie or Zach that neither could reel off long strings of specific Christmas memories. And Robbie agrees with his younger brother that this might be the one to remember. Robbie feels he’s not only been given the gift of freedom, but the bigger gift of seeing Zach clean and sober.
“I hate that it took what it did take for us both to get our heads on right,” Robbie said. “I’m not sure it could have happened any other way though. We were both going to do what we wanted, how we wanted. I’m glad we’ve got our heads on straight now. I’m glad he could learn from my experience.”
One of the nicest things was getting packages from home. My mom, sister, or someone else would be able to send me a cake, candy, nuts and other goodies I couldn’t get during the rest of the year. Besides these packages we would also usually get a “Happy Sack” from the authorities. These would be grocery bags filled with various things that came from the inmate store and from donations. Some guys didn’t have anyone to send them anything, and for others their families couldn’t afford the cost of the food and postage. For these guys, the happy sack was the only bright spot of the season.
Sometime in the mid 1990s, I began to notice a bottle of hand lotion and a bar of soap in the Happy Sack with a sticker that said “Azalea City Prison Ministries.” The label stood out to me because the ministry was located in Valdosta, Ga., where I grew up. I didn’t give much thought to who was sending the material, and I would usually give away the pamphlets that often accompanied the packages.
In 2006, a friend of mine went to a private halfway house called the Refuge of Hope, in Quitman, Ga. This was near Valdosta, so I began checking on the program there. A little research revealed it was part of Azalea City Prison Ministries (AZPM). After going through the interview process I was accepted to the program there, and with their support I was paroled in December of 2009.
There was no way I could have known the world of love and caring I was about to enter, a world largely the creation of Andy and Bonnie Squires. They, along with Grady Williams, had begun the Refuge a decade before. They had been involved in the church, and particularly in prison ministry, for most of their lives; Bonnie since she was a girl, and Andy since the late 1970s when he began AZPM. After so many years of bringing the Gospel to prisoners they were well aware of the dearth of support and housing for parolees, and all felt called by God to do something about it.
Over the nine months that I lived there, I learned a lot about how much work went into delivering those bars of soap and bottles of lotion I had enjoyed for so many years. I was surprised to learn that they provided items to more than 50,000 prisoners, including kids in youth prisons. Pallets of supplies came in all year, and semi trailers were loaded in preparation for the work in December. The men living at the Refuge worked repackaging and labeling the items.
This year, Andy told me they were sending soap, lotion, shampoo, Chapstick, Snickers bars, Pop Tarts and other goodies to most prisoners in Georgia, the residents of youth detention centers in Thomasville, Waycross, and Americus, Georgia, and the residents of boys’ and girls’ youth prisons in Greenville, Fla. This, from a program that started at the Lowndes County, Ga., jail with 85 inmates 20 years ago.
When I asked Andy what he would like for people to know about the Christmas efforts of AZPM he told me about a letter he received a few years ago. It was from a prisoner in Georgia. He told them that during the Christmas season he had become despondent. He was depressed and lonely and tired of the life he was leading in prison. He had finally decided he wanted to kill himself. Around that time he got his Happy Sack, and inside he found a piece of paper with a message on it. “Give God control of your life. He can do more with it than you can.”
This piece of paper, and the goodies in the bag, were proof to him that he was indeed loved. Someone had taken the time to care for him, to show him some love.
Matthew 25:36 says, “Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.” Andy, Bonnie, Grady, and many others who support them bring this verse to life in the harsh world of prison life. May they be blessed by God and by us.