March-April 2013 | Featured Article

Letting Joey Go

There's only so much parents can do to shape their children's lives. Sandra Swenson learned that the hard way, when one of her two sons followed the straight and narrow-while the other spiraled into addiction.

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Swenson (left) and Vicky Strella (far right) watch as Mario Chivas prepares a dish during a recent Bistro BoyZ session. Photo by Erick GibsonThe Junior Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase, of which she’s a member, was involved in fundraising for the Greentree Adolescent Program (GAP) at The National Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit in Bethesda. In the spring of 2011, Swenson proposed a more hands-on commitment to the at-risk teens who spend a year in the community.

Since some of the 20 youths would be moving on to independent living, why not teach them to cook for themselves, she asked.

Her idea evolved into Bistro BoyZ, which will soon begin its third year. Each week, a group of five volunteers and five teens shops for ingredients at a local Giant supermarket, sticking to a $35 budget. The next night, they prepare and eat a meal together.

Some of Swenson’s happiest memories are of the times she and her sons spent in the kitchen, mixing up muffins or spreading frosting. In later years, she recalls, the Petrone kitchen was often filled with teenagers “rubbing elbows and laughing.”

On a recent evening in a small dorm kitchen at GAP, a fair amount of elbow-rubbing and laughing was taking place as Swenson and her cohorts, Ginny Webber and Vicky Strella (known as the GalZ), showed three hungry teens how to cook a steak dinner. The boys had planned a feast that included baked potatoes with cheese and sour cream, hot crescent rolls with butter, oven s’mores and ice cream, lemonade, a savory wine sauce for the steak.

Everything was going smoothly until three George Foreman grills and a microwave running simultaneously blew a fuse. But once the lights were restored, everyone sat down at a long table groaning with food, and eventually the conversation turned to the next meal. One teen reminisced about his grandmother’s adobo sauce, and Swenson promised to hunt down a recipe.  

Vivacious and maternal, she was clearly in her element among the young men, one of whom told her recently, “Wow, this is just like eating dinner with a family.”  

Although she knows little about their lives, she’s aware that many of the youths have grown up in deprived and difficult circumstances. The teens who are referred to GAP by the state Department of Juvenile Services and the D.C. Department of Human Services all show potential to benefit from an intensive residential program that includes counseling, anger management, coping skills and substance abuse prevention. They also attend Bethesda public schools, where their classmates are often unaware that they live in a group home.

One reason Bistro BoyZ has been such a hit with the teens is the connection it creates to the community, says GAP Program Director Roberta Rinker. “It is incredible for the boys to experience members of the local community caring for them as our staff does, and doing it as volunteers,” she says.

In the more than four years since Joey walked out of his last rehab, Swenson has heard from him only sporadically, “always with a different phone number and a different story.”

But she has come to accept the idea of “letting go,” and now, if he phones while drunk or high, she gently suggests that he call back later.

“Before, I’d never do that—I’d be so desperate to talk to him,” she says.

Often, Joey does call back, though if he’s lost his phone or is on another binge or in jail, she might not hear from him for months. Although she hasn’t stopped worrying altogether, “he doesn’t manipulate me anymore. He used to call and try to get money, or just to sway me into a way of thinking. He’s still a drug addict with a problem life, but now when he calls we have an understanding. We can have a relationship, such as it is.”    

Swenson, who recently moved from Bethesda to Silver Spring, gave Joey the manuscript of her book to read a few months ago. “I thought he’d be mad,” she says. “It’s a love story, and it’s true, but there are a lot of hard things in it.” She had written the book using pseudonyms, but Joey told her that she should use real names. And that he hoped it would be published one day.

“It was interesting to see my life from someone else’s perspective,” he says by telephone from West Palm Beach. “She really gets the whole picture, and maybe it could help somebody else.”

Day-to-day life is difficult, says Joey, now 25. Steady employment is hard to find in Florida—he works construction or on boats or in restaurants. He recently lost a job tending bar at a strip club after a drunken altercation. Rent is expensive, so he sometimes sleeps on the beach or at a shelter.

Asked what led him to take such a path in life, he says, “Boredom, unhappiness—it’s a coping mechanism. Boredom is the main thing.” He pauses. “I’d like to want to stop drinking. But there are some things I won’t give up, like smoking weed.”

During their struggles with Joey, Swenson worried that Rick was being neglected, but even in the worst of times he seemed full of purpose and determination. Now 22, he graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., in 2012 with a double major in psychology and philosophy. For him, Joey—whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in years—was an object lesson. “I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps,” Rick says, adding, “I don’t really fall into peer pressure.”

“Both of my boys set sail down the same river, but while Ricky has sailed along smoothly, something rocked Joey’s boat,” Swenson writes in her book. “Some perfect storm of personality, circumstance and genetics knocked him off course.”

Having finally accepted that she isn’t to blame for Joey’s addiction, she says: “I also can’t take credit for Rick [succeeding]. He did that himself.”

Swenson often thinks about the contrast between her sons’ upbringing and the far more precarious childhoods of the Bistro BoyZ. “I look at these boys who’ve had far, far more difficult circumstances than Joey had, and my son is the one who’s homeless and a drug addict, and these kids are plugging away,” she says.

But perhaps some Florida volunteer will do for Joey what she could not, maybe say or do “some little thing” that sets his life on a better course.

One “little thing” the GalZ do for the Bistro BoyZ as they’re leaving GAP is to give them a large plastic storage box containing a George Foreman grill, pots and pans, dish soap, cooking utensils and seasonings.

“Now they know how to use these things,” Swenson says. “Maybe at some point they’ll see the grill or the pot or the pan and they’ll think back and say, ‘Oh, yeah, there were those ladies who gave me that, who cared enough to spend some time with me.’

“Maybe it will make a difference when they hit another rough patch.”

Helping the BoyZ

The Bistro BoyZ have a 2012 fundraising cookbook, Pie in the Sky, sponsored by Bethesda chef Tony Marciante of Chef Tony’s and other local partners. The Junior Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase also sponsors a scholarship fund, BenefactorZ, for Bistro BoyZ who want to attend culinary school.

To purchase cookbooks or donate to Bistro BoyZ or BenefactorZ, go to http://jwccc.org/cookbook-and-bistro-boyz/paypal-payment-click-here/.

Kathleen Wheaton lives in Bethesda and frequently writes for the magazine.