By: Sarah Terry-Cobo The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Damian Rodriguez is willing to give potential employees a chance that other employers might not offer: a path to recovery.
The president and chief operating officer at CDR Global hires people from Firstep, a residential recovery program run by the OKC Metro Alliance.
He said he knows how important it is to have steady work when recovering from alcohol or drugs. He’s been sober for 26 years. He attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every day, and takes workers from Firstep to a meeting every day at lunch.
“If you’ve lived the life of alcohol or drug abuse, it becomes a lifestyle that is really hard to break,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been sober and always worked with folks who were sober.”
CDR Global buys and sells computer equipment, making repairs or recycling parts. Employees from Firstep disassemble unusable machines. The warehouse jobs he offers aren’t high-paying, but are consistent, he said.
OKC Metro Alliance Executive Director Connie Schlittler said the Firstep program began about 30 years ago, providing housing and a sober environment. The organization has 70 beds for men and 56 beds for women. Employers sign contracts with Schlittler’s organization and Firstep provides transportation to and from work for employees. Since Jan. 1, the organization served more than 500 people.
Longer-term housing is a critical component of recovering from alcohol or substance abuse.
“People need support to prevent a relapse,” Schlittler said.
Firstep participants work during the day and attend classes in the evening, including financial planning and parenting, as well as attending 12-step meetings.
Richie Shaw has worked for Rodriguez for about three and a half months. He used to work on an oil rig, but was laid off when the company lost drilling contracts. He said he has been in recovery programs before, but wasn’t ready to change. But he said he eventually became tired of instability and joined Firstep.
On Tuesday, he pulled apart telecom equipment, separating aluminum pieces from other metal parts and wires. He and three other workers disassembled electronic equipment, readying pieces for recycling or disposal.
“I just want to be stable,” Shaw said. “I don’t have to worry about money anymore, I feel healthier and I’ve gained weight.”
Rodriguez said not all employees work out. But he said he’s tried other day labor services before and wasn’t satisfied. He got new employees every day, which meant he had to spend more time training them. He has worked with Firstep about one year after CDR Global opened in 2003.
In the beginning, it was challenging to find the right workers, he said. But once he had a conversation with those at the OKC Metro Alliance and they learned more about what CDR Global needs, it’s been much better, Rodriguez said.
He said he understands the issues many Firstep participants face. He said he often spends time talking to his workers, to learn more about what’s going on when they’re not at work.
Rodriguez has hired a number of employees who graduated from the program. The initial period acts as a proving ground for potential workers. If they aren’t pulling their weight or aren’t committed to being sober, he said he reminds them they are taking up someone else’s place.
He said he is committed to taking employees to AA meetings at lunch, because it helps improve productivity, and workers are generally happier.
Schlittler said a majority of female Firstep participants have children. They rely on family members and friends to help while they are living there. But some attend so they can regain custody of their children.
Jody Thompson and his wife, Amie Buckmaster, graduated from the Firstep program in early February. But he was initially stubborn about joining a recovery program. It wasn’t easy to give up drugs after being a user for 20 years, he said.
It started when the couple got into trouble with drugs in 2015. When child welfare workers came to their house, the place was a mess, he said. Their children were taken away from them. They both entered Firstep on July 30, 2015.
He worked at CDR Global for about a month, then got a job at Firstep running the men’s dormitory. He said he enjoyed his short time at Rodriguez’s company, because he saw all of Rodriguez’s accomplishments.
Buckmaster said she tried three different sober living organizations and relapsed or left the program early. But when the Department of Human Services came to take her children, something changed.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore, I couldn’t live that way,” Buckmaster said. “My dream is just to be a momma, to make my kids happy, to stay sober and get my GED.”
She stays at home with four children, who are between the ages of 2 and 9.
Rodriguez said he encourages other employers to consider trying Firstep; he said he never hesitated to work with the organization.
“I have a huge place in my heart for this program for a long time,” he said.