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Lessons from the brink: Ex-substance abuser now helps people stay off drugs - Record Online

NEWBURGH - The first time Dawn Wilkin picked up a drink, she was eight years old.
"I just liked the taste of beer," she said.

She started out sneaking her father's beer at their home in Dutchess County. By 12, she was drinking hard liquor. By 14, she smoked marijuana, and at 16 she tried cocaine for the first time. She dropped out of Beacon High School at 16, but got her diploma from an alternative high school.
Her first trip to rehab was at 17
.
"I think I lasted two and a half weeks when I came home. And the relapse was even harder," Wilkin said.

Now sober, Wilkin is the assistant director of prevention services for Catholic Charities of Orange County, working with kids and the community to lower the rates of substance abuse and teaching kids the life skills they need to stay off drugs. She’s also the mother of two.

None of it has been easy, Wilkin said, but along the way she has found people willing to show her how to help herself: a caseworker who got her into an office technology program that led to jobs; a Dutchess County drug-counseling program director who took a chance and hired her as a managerial assistant; supervisors who encouraged her to get her associate degree in community mental health and to earn state credentials.

Since 2008, Wilkin has been with Catholic Charities’ Team Newburgh. Her bosses credit her with turning the program into a powerhouse.

The road here was a hard one.
At 18, because of a combination of substance abuse and medical problems that hadn't yet been discovered, her liver started to fail. She overdosed a couple of times.

"I used to tell people, by the time I was 20, I'll be dead," Wilkin said.

Instead, at 20, something unexpected happened. After years of doctors telling her she couldn’t have children, Wilkin was pregnant. And suddenly, this wasn't about her anymore.

"I found a reason. I found something to live for," she said.

She went through withdrawal while she was pregnant. The birth was rough. Her daughter stopped breathing a couple of times, but her miracle baby made it.

She struggled as a single mother, dealing with Social Services and Family Court while navigating the rocky road of recovery. Then the counselor got her into the BOCES program, and that led to jobs.

Still there were challenges. Her second daughter also arrived amid health issues, and there were a few months when Wilkin and her girls lived on friends’ couches. But that is the past.

Her oldest, now an adult, has her cosmetology license. The younger girl is on the high honor roll.

“I try to instill in my children to have that resiliency to fight,” Wilkin said.

It’s a message Wilkin gives to the people she encounters in her work.

“You have to be able to tell people ‘you can do this,’ ” Wilkin said. “There is hope out there for people. It’s a commitment. It’s a commitment to yourself. You just have to find a reason.”

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