Amid the chaos of a New York City homeless shelter, serenity smells like sweet, mellow strawberries.
That’s how Lorenzo Brooks, a 60-year-old graveyard shift employee at a men’s shelter on West 168th Street, described the calming sensation he felt when he picked up a coworker’s incense oil and took a whiff. He said he liked the “smooth and relaxing” scent so much he bought a small bottle he carries everywhere.
A few weeks later, Lorenzo learned in his substance abuse counselor training class that aromatherapy—or using scented oils for relaxation purposes— is among alternative therapies recommended for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction (and for counselors helping them get there). The instructor suggested students try lavender oil, known for its soothing qualities, but said different scents work for different people.
“I am learning a whole lot,” said Lorenzo, who overcame drug addiction about 20 years ago and wants to help others do the same. “Just to put it to the test, I went out and purposely smelled lavender.”
Lorenzo is enrolled in a four-month certification program he hopes will put him on a path to fulfilling a dream that began decades ago, when he was in prison and discovered a talent for helping others.
Soon after he was released last September, after serving 30 years for second-degree murder, he started working to make that dream a reality—first securing basic necessities such as housing and health care, then finding a job, and finally enrolling in the Credentialed Alcohol & Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) training he attends four days a week.
The program, taught by addiction specialists at the Resource Training Center in Midtown and credentialed (after a rigorous exam) through New York State is only the first step in a process that could take Lorenzo about three years to complete. He also hopes to earn a Bachelor’s degree in behavioral science through the College Initiative at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a higher education program aimed at people who have been incarcerated.
“It’s my way of giving back to society,” Lorenzo said of his career goals. “I’ve taken a lot from society.”
As Lorenzo begins to rebuild a life he left behind 30 years ago, he has agreed to let The Crime Report document his journey. Previously in our series, we talked with Lorenzo about his job at the nonprofit Project Renewal, reconnecting with family his hometown of Norfolk, Va. and finding a community of peers at Fortune Society, where he lives.
Careers in social services are appealing to people coming out of prison—particularly people who have spent a long time behind bars—because they see the work as a way to repay a debt they believe they owe society, said Bianca van Heydoorn, director of Educational Initiatives at the Prison Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“It’s a way for folks to feel that that they’re repairing some of the harm that they’ve done,” she said.
People also tend to be drawn to the type of work they began doing in prison, van Heydoorn said, explaining that inmates who had spent a long time behind bars often mentored newer inmates and helped them figure things out.
“They’re developing skills in counseling and the helping professions while they’re there,” she said. “They get very good at it and then want to continue on the outside.”
“Part of a Journey”
Lorenzo first decided he wanted to become a substance abuse counselor around 1994, when he was enrolled in a class studying alternatives to violence at Green Haven Correctional Institute.
He decided he wanted to delve deeper into the subject and enrolled in college courses in sociology, psychology, interviewing and counseling, accumulating a total of 74 prison college credits through Duchess Community College, Ulster Community College and Maris University.
Later, he worked as a grievance clerk for a total of about five years in a few different institutions, helping resolve other inmates’ complaints. That’s when he found a passion for helping others.
The course, which will teach Lorenzo how to help clients dealing with issues ranging from child abuse to emotional problems, will make him eligible to apply for approval to take the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) certification exam. If he passes, he becomes a counselor-in-training, and will then have to complete 6,000 hours in the field as an intern before he can work as a substance abuse counselor (a Bachelor’s degree may reduce the number of hours to 5,000.)
“If you’ve done 30 years in prison, you’re pretty much ready to face any obstacles,” said Dona Pagan, vice president of the Resource Training Center as well as one of its instructors. Although Pagan met Lorenzo only briefly, she says she is not surprised to hear how motivated he is.
“(Lorenzo) is not here just to take a substance abuse course,” Pagan said. “This is part of a journey.”
Skills of a Counselor
A couple of weeks ago, Lorenzo and other staff members were dealing with an angry client at the homeless shelter where he works, a facility run by the nonprofit Project Renewal on West 168th Street. The man was upset because staff had woken him up and asked him to move his mattress off of the floor, where it was blocking everyone’s way.
As Lorenzo and his colleagues tried to reason with the man and explain the problem, he eventually calmed down. In dealing with the situation, Lorenzo said he remembered the strategies he learned in class.
“You’ve got to be calm yourself,” he said. “The manner in which you talk to a client is very, very important.”
Although Lorenzo has been learning a lot of new skills in the course, he has also realized how much he already knows.
“A lot of the stuff that we learn in here I’ve been using with the clients at the shelter,” he said. “It’s sort of an extension of what I was doing before I was released.”
For instance, he recently advised a client at the shelter, a man he knows from prison who was released several weeks ago, to make an appointment with a job coach at the Center for Employment Opportunities. That’s the nonprofit that helped Lorenzo land his own job back in December.
Later, when he saw the client preparing to head out to the interview dressed in his everyday clothes, Lorenzo stopped him.
“Go to the appointment like you’re going to the job interview itself,” Lorenzo told the client. And when this man said he doesn’t have interview clothes, Lorenzo told him to contact Midnight Run, a nonprofit that provides clothing and other items to homeless individuals.
In prison, this was called showing someone “the ropes,” Lorenzo said. Now he knows there’s a formal name for what he does.
“I was giving him a referral.”
Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.