From Handcuffs to MSW

By Greg Stone, Program Director Men’s Residential Center

I first met Jerome Gilgan in 2003 when he entered the Volunteers of America Oregon Men’s Residential Center (MRC) for the first of his three MRC treatment episodes. For the previous 20 years, Jerome was heavily involved in a life of trauma, chaos, violence, and criminality associated with his methamphetamine addiction. He was incarcerated for ten of those 20 years.

In Jerome’s first stay at the MRC, he discovered a community of staff and alumni that cared deeply about him and offered the tools to choose recovery. For the first time in his life, he felt unconditional love and acceptance. Jerome was inspired to change, especially around his addiction, but he still struggled with his criminality. After two months, Jerome was arrested by his parole officer for selling stolen laptops and walked out of the MRC in handcuffs.

In jail, Jerome knew he wanted recovery, and six weeks later he re-entered the MRC. After one week at the MRC, his uncle, who had introduced Jerome to methamphetamines at the age of 19, passed away. Jerome used this death as an excuse to leave treatment.

A few months later, Jerome had a random encounter with a middle school student who he had spoken to through the MRC’s speaker’s bureau. In this serendipitous encounter, the seventh-grade student saw Jerome at a MAX stop and shared with him. “You came and spoke to my school, and I will never use drugs or alcohol because of what you said.” This touched Jerome’s heart so deeply that he called me and asked if he could come back to the MRC. The MRC does not give up on people, so of course, I told Jerome, yes.

On November 4, 2003, Jerome entered the MRC for the final time as a client. He graduated on May 11, 2004. In 2005, when my daughter, Kristina, was writing a paper on methamphetamines, she asked if I could bring a client to her high school class to speak on this topic. I immediately thought of Jerome, and since that time Jerome and I have spoken to thousands of high school and university students. Our speaking has taken us on road trips to Ashland, Bend, Eugene, Newberg, Salem, and Scappoose. Ten years ago, when Kristina became a high school health teacher in Corvallis, we started making that trip twice a year. I will cherish forever these road trips with Jerome and our time connecting as brothers.

After our first speaking engagement, he started volunteering at the MRC. A few months later Jerome became the first MRC alumni to earn an MRC scholarship to pay his full tuition costs for the Portland Community College Alcohol & Drug Counselor Program. In July of 2005, Jerome was hired to work at the MRC as a Residential Counselor. About 18 months later he was promoted to a Counselor position. In December 2018, Jerome was promoted into one of the three management positions at the MRC.

Over the past 31 years, I have met thousands of men through my work at the MRC and Jerome’s amazing transformation in recovery continues to inspire me daily and touch my heart at a deep level. Jerome has become the alumni face of the MRC. His compassion, grace, passion, heart, commitment, and loyalty, all symbolize the values of the MRC.

Jerome has an innate skill to motivate and inspire our clients to choose recovery. Jerome’s passion, charisma, humor, capacity to implement compassionate accountability, and his personal story of recovery, make him one of the best counselors I have ever seen. He is the consummate role model of recovery. Hundreds of clients over the years have credited his relapse prevention class as being the most beneficial skill they have learned at the MRC in supporting their recovery.

Jerome’s personal story is an inspiration to anyone who hears it. Over the past 17 years, thousands of students have heard Jerome’s story and many MSW students have been inspired by Jerome to become interns and to work at the MRC. Jerome welcomes each student intern and new staff into the MRC, and he has mentored so many with his time, wisdom, and heart. Jerome cherishes the opportunity of speaking to kids, especially those who have experienced childhood trauma. He wants them to know they are not alone, that what they have experienced is not their fault, and to seek the help they need to be healthy.

There are so many traits that I respect and appreciate about Jerome, but the greatest one is his love and commitment to his kids and grandkids. Jerome is an amazing role model for our clients in how to parent. Jerome’s commitment to be more involved with his youngest son, to help him through his adolescent challenges, has led Jerome to make one of the most difficult choices he has had to make in his life. Jerome is moving to a relief counselor position at the MRC in order to work remotely from home so he can be more involved in his son’s life. I have seen how difficult this decision has been on Jerome and how it tears at his heart.

In June 2021, Jerome, a ninth-grade dropout, graduated with a master’s in social work. His earning an advanced degree and promotion to manager at the MRC, are two of my proudest moments in my 31 years at the MRC. The man who walked out the front door in handcuffs is now helping to run our program. This transformation is as good as it gets and symbolizes the powerful change process of our treatment center.

The common belief in management circles is that anyone can be replaced. Of course, you can replace anyone, but you cannot replicate the transformational gifts that Jerome offers to the MRC. If you are a basketball fan, you are aware that the Chicago Bulls have not won another championship since Michael Jordan retired. Just like Jordan was an icon to the NBA, Jerome joins Al Forthan as an icon to the MRC.


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