Kismet Evans doesn't sugarcoat when she talks to homeless veterans, aimless young people and others whose well-being she considers part of her calling as a person in recovery. Everything she experienced in the worst of times is on the table as part of the message she delivers to others, and she considers this openness critical to the success she has been able to achieve.
“Who better to teach them?” says Evans, 47, who has become an influential presence in the human services community in Riverside County, California. “I was probably 110 pounds soaking wet back then, and I was out there doing the same things these people are doing.”
“Back then” for Evans was during her late 20s when she made the fateful transition from a placid, church-going, substance-free life to a short period of experimentation with cocaine. “Six months later I was off and running,” she recalls of her addiction. She would be immersed in a life of despair for seven years, a period marked by three incarcerations. Amid the haze of a life on the streets, she recalls an occasion when a scrawny old woman approached her and told her she didn't have to be in her situation if she didn't want to be.
In what would be Evans' last encounter with the justice system, she was able to reduce her jail time by agreeing to enter and complete a 12-month outpatient treatment program at the Recovery Opportunity Center in Riverside. The judge, who had called her “one sick sister” and got no argument from Evans, helped place her on the path to redemption, she says.
“I had lost my job, my home, my dignity, my family support,” Evans says. “But when I was in my treatment on the downstairs floor of the program, my two oldest kids were upstairs.” She says of the work she did in treatment, “It wasn't simple but it wasn't hard.”
Since completing treatment, Evans has worked for or established several agencies devoted to helping society's most desperate. She is co-founder of Inland Empire Veterans Stand Down, a program connecting homeless veterans and their families to community supports.
“My father was in the Marines; I can identify with many of the issues of veterans,” she says. “My main efforts today are with youths and with homeless veterans.”
Work on multiple fronts
The approach of Evans' program for homeless veterans is to provide the information needed to start individuals on a productive path. This might take the form of a referral to treatment or something as simple as a food voucher or needed transportation to a community facility.
“There are a lot of people out there who don't realize they are eligible for benefits,” Evans says.
Evans also founded the organization Men of Valor and Excellence, an entity designed to offer transitional services such as counseling and vocational assistance to veterans. She is working on establishing transitional housing options for veterans through this organization.
Prior to establishing her own organizations, Evans worked at a coed residential treatment center, then later at a treatment program targeting female parolees and their children. Most of the populations she has served in her various roles have faced circumstances very similar to what she experienced in her 20s and 30s.
“Back in 1996, I simply said a prayer that God allow me to spend my life helping men, women and children deal with this disease,” she says. “Things have blossomed for me since then.”
Evans attributes the success of her approach in many different roles to integrity and honesty in working with clients. “I tell them, ‘This is the road you have to take,’” she says. “You'll see how it has benefited me. … I love my life today-good or bad, right or wrong.”
Evans' diverse efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged won her some unexpected recognition last November, when the California Wellness Foundation honored her and two others in its 16th annual California Peace Prize ceremony. The foundation, which prioritizes efforts on a variety of health issues including violence prevention, mental health and diversity in the health professions, honors individuals who operate in the trenches and could be classified as a community's unsung heroes.
“I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it,” Evans says of the award. “I'm overwhelmed by my even being considered.”
The award came with an unrestricted cash grant of $25,000 from the foundation. Evans would like to use the money to secure permanent office space for Inland Empire Veterans Stand Down and to cement the organization's nonprofit status.
“It would be good to be able to have a building so we could provide treatment,” Evans says. “I'm ready.”
Addiction Professional 2009 September-October;7(5):56