Someone You Know®
A campaign that shows a different side of addiction and inspires hope in recovery.
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The opioid crisis has been a major issue in the United States since the late 1990s, claiming nearly 48,000 lives. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses.
The Independence Blue Cross Foundation’s (Foundation) Someone You Know campaign aims to reduce the stigma of opioid addiction, inspire hope, and empower others to seek help and treatment.
Ramon Cruz and Luis Soto are two Latinos of Puerto Rican heritage and current Philadelphia residents. They spoke about their experiences with addiction and their paths toward recovery. For both, it was a personal tragedy that led them to drugs. After years battling addiction, both men reached a point where they wanted to turn their lives around and start anew. These are their stories.
Ramon Cruz grew up in the Kensington/Fairhill section of Philadelphia. Very close to his family, especially his father, Cruz’s battle with addiction started during his early 20s. During that time, he was in and out of incarceration for drug dealing.
After losing his father while incarcerated, he began using opioids to help mask the pain and depression of his loss. At one point, a judge told him that he either had to make a change or he would spend the rest of his life in prison. That was the pivotal moment when Cruz realized he needed mental health services to get to the core of his addiction. “It was in prison where I started my opioid addiction, and it was in prison where I ended it,” Cruz said.
Cruz said his recovery is based on a spiritual journey. After venturing down several paths towards recovery, he finally surrendered his will over to his higher power: a principal belief of addiction recovery.
It was his time in a recovery house where he says he learned more about himself and as a person of color. He learned about the disproportionate impact that drug laws and the prison system have on Black and Latino communities.
“While members of some communities enter treatment programs and rebuild broken relationships, some members of communities of color often are just incarcerated,” he said, noting additional struggles of poverty, substandard education, employment, housing and food insecurity as other factors Black and Latino communities often disproportionately face. “A lot of the challenges are due to the stigma people in recovery face,” he added.
Cruz has seen a shift within the prison system over the years, with many more programs geared toward helping Latinos and other communities of color succeed during their recovery process. Today, there many programs and pathways for people in recovery such as Medicaid and Assisted Treatment (MAT), The Amity In-Prison Therapeutic Community (TC) program, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and more.
“I think the criminal justice system has done a great job in offering mental health and treatment,” said Cruz. “It’s giving people an option now.”
Luis Soto was born in Guayama and raised in Salinas, Puerto Rico. He is the third youngest of seven sisters and six brothers. Growing up, he loved school and playing sports. He came to the United States in 1993 when he was 21, like many, to find the American Dream.
Initially, he worked with one of his younger brothers, who was as Luis says, “running the streets,” and getting into trouble. Unfortunately, Soto followed that same path, fighting, selling drugs and participating in illegal activities.
When Soto’s five-month old son tragically passed away, it hit him especially hard. He turned to drugs to help him deal with his intense pain and emotions. From that point, he felt his life spiraling out of control. “I took the wrong path after that,” said Soto. “ I forgot about my first-born son, who’s now 29 years old”.
Soto was incarcerated many times, including one eight-year sentence. It was in prison, he says, where he began to mentally mature. “I was tired of doing the same thing and expecting different results. I blamed everybody and everything around me for my life,” he recalled.
Now Soto has a different perception on life and understands that consequences come from the decisions that he makes. December 31, 2010 was the last day Soto ever used drugs and has been in recovery ever since. “It was that day that I had clarity in my life and the desire of change my ways as well help others.”
For Soto and Cruz, their participation in the Someone You Know Campaign is grounded in the belief that everyone has a unique story to tell. “I’m still healing by sharing my story,” said Cruz.
He tells his story in many ways, including at crisis intervention training, Narcan training sessions, and at faith-based churches and more. “It’s something that I really love to do, to let people know that there is hope, and that you can heal,” he added.
People who do not know Cruz have reached out to him through social media to share how impactful his story is to them. It has also made a profound impact on his family. “I could not tell you how proud my family is of where I’m today,” said Cruz, adding that the Someone You Know campaign has made him a better person.
Soto shared a similar sentiment about wanting to help others through Someone You Know and being an inspiration to others to have the confidence to tell their own stories. “I want to be honest and transparent about my story, because that’s who I used to be, who I am, and where I’m going.”
Soto and Cruz view their participation in Someone You Know as symbols of hope and positivity for those in recovery.
In the years that Cruz and Soto have been in recovery, (5 for Cruz, almost 10 for Soto) each has helped others find the support they need.
Today, both work for the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) as certified peer recovery specialists.
In July 2019, the department launched the Community Wellness Engagement Unit, a multilingual engagement team designed to provide greater access to wellness-related resources and support for all communities within its scope. In their roles, they give back to the community and provide valuable resources to those who need it most.
“That is really the foundation of the work that I do,” said Cruz. “It’s community-driven, listening to the community’s voice. It’s about a better quality of life in the community.”
With DBHIDS, Cruz has contributed to a number of different initiatives, including the designation of a quarantine site in Center Philadelphia. He has also helped two organizations - Esperanza and Rock Ministries - come together to bring a COVID-19 testing site to Kensington. In October of 2019, Ramon was appointed by Mayor Kenney as one of the Commissioners for The Mayor’s Commission of Addiction & Recovery.
In addition to his work at DBHIS, Cruz hosts a radio show called Kensington Pulse, to promote good things happening in that community.
“The show, [which is on hiatus due to Covid-19,] focuses on the positive aspects in Kensington. We all know the negative things that happen there, so I try to break down the stigma surrounding behavioral challenges while also helping people through the criminal justice system,” he said.
Pulling from his own experiences on how difficult it was to transition to life post-incarceration; Cruz wants people to know that recovery is possible and there is good that can come out of these horrible situations.
“The show provides a platform for people to talk about their journey, “he says. “It gives hope to the people that struggle and to those in recovery.”
For Soto, working at DBHIDS’ Community Wellness Engagement Unit is the best job he has ever had. As a peer recovery specialist, he can engage the community, listen to them and support them. “This job brings me joy because I’m doing what I love,” he says. “Somebody helped me to be where I’m at today, so that’s what I’m doing with the next person.”
In recovery, Soto knows the challenges of language barriers and says that being bi-lingual goes a long way towards helping a larger number of people. “I'm a community member also, and sometimes the best way to help motivate somebody is to sit down and give that person some time, to listen to that person.” said Soto.
By openly telling their stories through Someone You Know, Soto and Cruz are esteemed advocates for recovery, and an inspiration for hope and change.