Becky Shuhart made it through hell. Now firmly planted on the other side, she is committed to doing good for those caught in the grip of opioid addiction and other mental illnesses.
Shuhart, who recently put down roots in Cherry Hill, was one of four individuals to be honored by JEVS Human Services Nov. 1 at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.
“Each year, we celebrate some truly incredible people — individuals who have been given two possible looks at their futures and refuse to be broken by the situations they were born into or made for themselves early on in life,” said Jay Spector, president and CEO of JEVS Human Services, as he announced the winners.
“Not only have these honorees overcome major obstacles, not only are they now giving back to the communities in which they live, but they are paying it forward by sharing their stories in order to inspire others like them.”
Shuhart grew up in Morrisville, Pa., where she was a state champion high jumper while attending Pennsbury High School. At the time, she never indulged in alcohol or drugs. Although she knew of parties where there were bowls of pills stolen from the cabinets of parents, few at the time had a grip on the true power of opioids.
“My drug addiction didn’t start until I went off to college at Millersville (University), where I was first introduced to alcohol and weed and opioids, Shuhart recalled.
“I ended up meeting someone who had access to pain medication, and the jump was only about two months before I became an addict. I quit sports and was burnt out by the time I really became full-blown.”
Shuhart left school following a bout with mononucleosis, but her situation worsened after a car accident that ruptured her spleen. She spent the next decade in and out of homelessness, scheming every day to support her habit.
“I was shoplifting, stealing from my family, things that to this day I feel so much guilt for,” she admitted. “Typical story: I was in and out of rehabilitation centers, Sometimes I’d leave after a few days, sometimes I’d stay for all 30 days, but nothing really seemed to work.”
Several months out of one rehab program, in 2010, she learned she was expecting a baby boy. She stayed clean during her pregnancy and for six months after Caiden was born, but she ended up relapsing and lost custody of her son, who lived with his grandparents for several months.
Shuhart later ended up winning a three-month scholarship at Recovery House, but she was eventually forced out and found herself living at a Philadelphia bus station for almost a year. One bus driver allowed Shuhart to ride her vehicle throughout her entire shift so she could stay warm on cold days.
“I can’t remember her name but the bus driver was an absolute angel in disguise,” Shuhart recalled. “She could have very well saved my life multiple times. Being homeless and sober is far from the easiest thing.”
Shuhart eventually found work at a Dunkin’ Donuts, enabling her to gain some stability. She was then hired by JEVS ACT (Achievement Through Counseling) program in April 2014, landing the job on her second interview. She quickly learned the ropes and began helping other patients. She was awarded a scholarship by the City of Philadelphia to attend a peer specialist certification program.
Shuhart currently works for Team Arrive in Philadelphia, where she is a Mobile Psychiatric Rehab Worker.
“On a typical day, I see clients at their house or in the community,” she explained. “I teach them different types of skills. Since I deal with chronically or severely disabled adults, those who are bipolar, etc., I might be teaching someone how to boil water for food on one call, and seeing another to help fill out applications for college.”
Shuhart has also found a solid foundation and an accepting community in Cherry Hill, fortified by the help her son’s grandparents provide and the assistance of the school district in guiding her child through rough waters.
“I’m not more than five minutes from any store I could ever need,” she related. “It’s a great community; there’s always something to do with my son. The district and the counselors couldn’t have been more helpful.
“It’s close to work in the city and close enough to everyone else,” she added. It was the perfect place.”
Having told her own story, Shuhart has some words of wisdom for anyone who might be dealing with the shame of addiction.
“Nobody grows up and says they want to be a drug addict, and living with someone is not easy,” she said. “It’s a ‘family disease,’ and I don’t think that there’s any one way to go about handling dealing with a loved one who is addicted.
“The most important thing is not to enable,” she warned, “but don’t turn your back.”
“I feel that connection to people who feel like they’ve been cut off from the whole world,” Shuhart added. “We need to destigmatize and start welcoming people. Showing them that people do care, do love them and want them to do well.
“I’m walking, breathing truth of that.”