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Recovering addict dedicates life to helping others in need

February 11, 2018

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Although recovery is different for everyone in some way, the first step is always to admit there is a problem.

When Justin Ponton did that, he found himself in an entirely different world. He suddenly found the motivation within himself to replace his heroin, alprazolam and alcohol addictions with a renewed appreciation for life and an urge to help others overcome similar struggles.

That isn’t to say his decision was easy or his path to recovery hasn’t been difficult; in fact, he is constantly reminded of his past because of the work he now does. He went from having no one and nothing to running Newness of Life, a group home for men with a variety of problems, and a major part of the job is sharing his story.

“If you’re on the inside of this, you see a whole lot of good,” Ponton said, noting the positive aspects of working in the recovery community easily outweigh the difficult ones. “Everybody on the outside doesn’t get to see a lot of the good because the good stories don’t always sell or draw the attention.”

Having survived a decade filled with drugs, alcohol and trouble with the law, Ponton ended up homeless at the Huntington City Mission about four years ago while he was on parole and strung out on heroin. His parole officer made him understand he had value and could conquer his afflictions, so he finally admitted he had a problem and set out to turn his life around.

At this point Ponton, 34, is still shocked that he isn’t dead or in jail, that his kids are doing well and that he has a good relationship with them. What’s more, he could never have imagined living the way he does now - keeping busy with fulfilling work that makes a difference in other people’s lives.

When people recover from addition, they are still addicts. The vast majority of those in recovery still have urges to use drugs or drink alcohol, but they rely on recovery communities to hold them accountable and to make them feel part of something bigger than themselves. Some of them relapse, and a few of them don’t make it.

“When we lose somebody that’s close to us or someone that we know, we know them as more than just another statistic or another name,” Ponton said. “I probably talk to as many if not more mothers and fathers and children every day of people that we’ve lost out here than ... parents and families of those who are actually in recovery and doing well.”

Ponton likes to think of Huntington as the capital of recovery instead of overdoses, and, by all indications, he and others running group homes in the area are a fundamental part of the city’s success at helping people reclaim their lives after suffering from addiction.

Although Ponton and his staff foot the bills, the two group homes they operate next door to each other in the 2200 block of 9th Avenue really belong to the company they keep.

One is for Newness of Life, and the other is for The ARK, an affiliate run by Ashley Kieffer for women in recovery. The people in both communities rely so heavily on one another for emotional support that their relationships are symbiotic and become like a family, often fostering long-term friendships.

Aside from Newness of Life, Ponton has a full-time job working with foster kids. His best friend, Kevin Bowman, graduated from the program about three years ago and now handles its day-to-day operations as assistant executive director.

“My whole life was just one big depressive stage, where I would go between either being blackout drunk or high to wanting to kill myself because I couldn’t stop it,” Bowman said, noting he wanted to quit for the longest time but didn’t know how. “I got out here and found structure. Justin helped me find a job.”

Newness of Life and The ARK receive no government support and are self-funded through resident fees, family sponsorships and occasional donations, according to their websites. The programs are designed to help people thwart their addictions and achieve a better quality of life in eight to 10 months.

They are faith-based programs and help people maintain their sobriety through a 12-step program with a sponsor, become self-sufficient by setting up gainful employment and teaching financial responsibility, establish healthy relationships with their families and complete any court-ordered supervision.

Other than addicts, they are open to homeless people, veterans, parolees and people on home confinement, among others. Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader and Family Court Judge Patricia Keller, both known for their supportive roles in the recovery community, are supporters of Newness of Life, The ARK and other group homes that produce results, and the Cabell County Drug Court sends Ponton the worst of the worst for help as a result.

Rader said officials in the drug court system know addicts will get the structure they need when Ponton and Newness of Life are involved. Noting she has never struggled with addiction herself, Rader also praised Ponton’s ability to reach people in a way she cannot if the extra help is necessary.

“I think he is a prime example of how we should never give up on anybody,” Rader said. “He’s proof that people do recover and in return save lives - many lives.”

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