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Preparing to return to work, after a life derailed by drugs

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Johnny Petty stops to catch his breath as he helps clean Shoe Away Hunger.
Johnny Petty stops to catch his breath as he helps clean Shoe Away Hunger, a charity in Minneapolis that he volunteers at on Oct. 19, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A bright red cross glows on the front of a squat brick storefront in south Minneapolis. Inside, dozens of pairs of shoes line the edges of the room. A cart with coffee in the corner suggests a $1 donation for a cappuccino. The used shoes go for about $5. Boots, if they have them, are $10.

Johnny Petty and another volunteer at the charity Shoe Away Hunger are closing up for the day, hauling heavy shelves down a narrow set of stairs into the basement.

"I was down here buying shoes," Petty said, "and I just asked him if he needed some help volunteering, and he said, 'Sure.' Gives me something to do until I start working again."

Almost two decades ago, Petty, 41, was working as a meat cutter at a grocery store in Colorado. He started taking extra painkillers he was prescribed after hurting his back, and mixing them with alcohol. When they couldn't find painkillers, his fiancee showed him how to shoot heroin.

"Within six months, by the time I was 22 years old, I was a full-blown junkie," Petty said. "I went from having everything I thought I wanted, to living in a camper outside her mother's house because she didn't trust us in the house."

Through his life, addiction to cocaine and heroin knocked Petty repeatedly off track, lost him jobs and left a trail of wrecked relationships, including with his former fiancee, who he later heard had passed away.

Petty recently finished his third stint at a drug treatment program. He's been clean more than a year. Volunteering at Shoe Away Hunger is a tentative step back into a work routine for someone who hasn't had a steady job in years.

Johnny Petty cleans the door of a charity where he volunteers.
Johnny Petty cleans the door of a charity where he volunteers in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I was raised up to work, it's nothing new. I just want to make sure I'm ready," Petty said. "The last couple times I got out of treatment, I jumped right back into work, and then I didn't know what to do with myself from there."

Petty is getting help from a Minneapolis-based nonprofit called Avivo, which pairs drug treatment with employment counseling and affordable housing. President and CEO Kelly Matter said Avivo serves 18,000 people across Minnesota each year with a variety of services.

"Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease — it's not a behavior," Matter said. "We are serving people on their journey with that disease and providing the right services and the right tools."

Some people struggling with chemical dependency have holes in their resumes that make it hard to get a job, Matter said. But her organization has relationships with employers dating back to the group's founding in the 1960s. To many enrolled in their treatment programs, work represents independence, Matter said.

There's been little study about whether drug treatment is more successful when paired with a job, said Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor August Holtyn. But it makes sense that jobs and housing could be factors in people's successful recovery.

"The National Institute on Drug Abuse has advocated for comprehensive treatments," Holtyn said, "that the best treatment programs would provide a combination of services that would be pretty much tailored to the individual patient."

Before his latest treatment, Petty said he was "leeching" off his then-pregnant sister in a small town outside the Twin Cities. His family thought he wasn't on drugs. His sister would drive him every day to the methadone clinic and buy the medication for him. He was secretly shooting up and selling the methadone.

Johnny Petty carries a box of donated shoes into the basement
Johnny Petty carries a box of donated shoes into the basement of Shoe Away Hunger. Petty's addiction to cocaine and heroin has made it difficult to maintain employment, but he sees volunteering as a step in the right direction.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I was doing everything wrong — everything — but to [my family] it looked like I was doing everything right," Petty said. "I realize all the time I've really been lying to myself and cheating myself out of life."

Petty grew up on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota, although all the cows are gone now. He said he's a small-town guy with good values but has always been drawn to trouble. Getting clean this time, Petty wanted to rebuild his life completely.  

He's reconnected with his faith. He met his little nephew for the first time over Christmas. And he's taken care of some longtime health issues while refusing painkillers to avoid relapse.

Petty just got offered an internship at a nonprofit's warehouse. He looks through job positions all the time. He plans to get advice from employment counselors at Avivo, and start sending out applications — just as soon as he finishes getting his teeth fixed.

For Petty, drug recovery has been about much more than just quitting cocaine or heroin.

"Drugs have taken their toll, but I can get back to that person I used to be, someone somebody looked up to," Petty said. "Every job I've ever had, I've climbed up the ladder in a hurry. So, if I can get that back, I think I can live a pretty good life."