by Sue Ann Rybak
— Part 2 in a 3-part series on ACHIEVEability
If you ask Harold Barrow, a senior coach at ACHIEVEability, a nonprofit organization that seeks to end the cycle of poverty through education, about his childhood, he will nonchalantly say, “it was rough.”
Now imagine a 3-year-old child with tears streaking downs his cheeks crying because his father, an illiterate alcoholic, beat him so badly he fractured his ribs. Another time, it was his arm. The physical beatings and verbal abuse continued for years until his mother finally found the courage to leave Barrow’s father.
“Even after my mom left my dad – when I was 6 years old – the abuse never really stopped because she really didn’t have good boyfriends,” he said. “It became a source of contention. As a young boy, I was like, ‘you don’t need boyfriends.’ She would tell me to mind my own business and smack me down.
“She was the best Mom she could be at the time I guess. She was the product of domestic violence and she only had a sixth-grade education. She didn’t have a lot of options. I just kind of went out on my own. I turned to the streets, and they became my family.
“As long as I can remember, I was hustling. When I was 9 years old, I was shining shoes outside bars trying to earn some money.”
Barrow, who grew up in Germantown, recalled how, when he was 11 years old, a few teenagers offered him some marijuana.
“They said, ‘Do you want some of this young buck’? and I said, ‘Yeah, give me some of that.’
The first time I did heroin was probably the first time in my life that I remember thinking ‘everything was beautiful. No more pain. No more worries.’ Heroin was an escape for me. It was the thing that made life bearable.
“By the time I was 14 years old, I was homeless and living on the streets of Germantown. That was when I made that final step. That’s when she told me, I couldn’t come back home. By 15, I was a full fledged heroin addict.
“I remember one time when I was 15 or 16, I stayed at my girlfriend’s house. I would hide under her bed until everybody was asleep, and then I would come out. If I couldn’t stay there, I would stay at one of my buddies’ houses or sleep in the park around Chew and Johnson Street.
“At that time, there was no Covenant House [a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, food and other services for homeless youth] or other safe place for teens. I think I was 16 going on 17 when this older lady took me in. She was in her late 30s. It was a bad situation. She wanted a boy child. She wanted a child she could manipulate. She let me stay there, but I had to perform my duties [have sex with her] ‘to earn my keep.’
“By that point, I had figured out that this is life. People want something in exchange for everything, which was my problem when I first came to ACHIEVEability. By the time I got here at 31, I was so jaded. They kept telling me, ‘We want to help you,’ and I was like ‘Come on, man, what do you really want? What do I have to do next’? Either I had to hurt somebody or be hurt.”
Barrow eventually ended up living in an abandoned house with a young woman who was also doing drugs. Shortly after, they had a baby. He recalled going to see the baby at Germantown Hospital.
“When I went to see the baby the next day,” he said, “the nurses told me that the mother had left in the middle of the night and abandoned the baby in the hospital. They told me I had a choice. I could keep the baby or place it in the hands of the state.
“I don’t know why I decided to take the baby because I was a heroin addict living in an abandoned house. The nurses were really gracious. They gave me some pampers, Similac baby formula, a diaper bag and a few other items. I took the baby back to the abandoned house. I didn’t know anything about taking care of a baby. It wasn’t long – maybe a week before I made a really bad mistake. I bought the baby some orange juice because I thought it would be good for her. And she got really sick. So sick that I had to take her to the emergency room because she wouldn’t stop throwing up. They explained to me that the baby couldn’t deal with the acid.
“As a result of that, a social worker came and said, ‘What’s going on. Why does this guy, who appears to be homeless, have this baby by himself’?
“The shelter system is designed for single men, women and women with children. I was the odd one out. The thing that propelled me to ACHIEVEability was housing.”
He recalled how a shelter for women and children put him and the baby in a small backroom.
“It was not a good situation,” said Barrow, who dropped out of school in eighth grade.
He was referred to ACHIEVEability by social services.
“At this point, the baby was about three months old,” he said. “A social worker at ACHIEVEability asked me where the baby’s immunization records were, and I replied, ‘What’s that’? Then she said, ‘Mr. Barrow, we are keeping you. We have an apartment upstairs.’ They moved me in the same day.
“I have been working for ACHIEVEability for 17 years, and that never happened before or since to my knowledge.”
Barrow, who is now 57, said, thanks to ACHIEVEability, the baby got the medical attention it needed right away, and he receive counseling and took parenting classes to learn how to care for the baby.
“I even learned how to do ballies (puff-balls) and put her hair in barrettes,” he said. “As you can imagine, I was kind of rough around the edges. Inevitably, the executive director ended up being my social worker and counselor because he was the only one who could handle me.
“They helped me earn my GED and get my first job. My first job was at Popeye’s Chicken making $5.25 an hour, and they helped me get a great apartment. I paid rent based on my income.”
He recalled the day his counselor sat down with him and told him he had to go to college.
“I said, ‘Come on man. Dude, I dropped out of school when I was in eighth grade. I am not college material.’ Then he told me that in order to stay in the program, I had to take classes at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). And I thought about the abandoned house, and I said, ‘All right man, whatever.”
Barrow said his counselor tutored him and taught him how to study. As a student at CCP, he majored in behavioral health and development and minored in addiction studies. He earned his certification to become an addictions counselor and graduated from CCP in 1996 with an associate degree in general studies.
After earning his degree at CCP, Drexel University offered him a scholarship for $9,000 – at the time it was half the cost of one year’s tuition. He graduated from Drexel in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Afterward, ACHIEVEability offered him a job as a drug and alcohol counselor.
“Once I started working at ACHIEVEability, I decided to go to grad school,” said Barrow, who earned his master’s degree in 2009 from Capella University in human services and community development. “I always say, ‘I got bitten by the academic bug.’ I was the first person in my family to earn a college degree. I came from the lowest point to the highest point.”
Now a senior self-sufficiency coach at ACHIEVEability, he said his passion is working with participants struggling with addiction in the program.
“I manage all the drug and alcohol programs at ACHIEVEability,” he said. “Only about 10 percent of the participants in our program have a history of drug and alcohol addiction. I am there for them. They can’t ever really say to me, ‘You don’t understand. It’s too hard.’ You just have to commit. Obviously, I had to address my addiction. No alcohol. No drugs. I had to change the people I hung out with. I tell them [participants in the program] to ‘stay on the path or get back on the path.’
“For the last 17 years, I have been helping families and going to participants’ graduations. It’s very rewarding. I live up in Eagleville now with my wife and daughter. I started a free drug and alcohol program up there on Monday nights. I am starting another one on Friday nights in Norristown. I am just trying to give back. I wasn’t a nice guy, so counseling is a great opportunity for me to give back.”
For more information about ACHIEVEability go to www.achieveability.org or call 215-748-8800. Part 3 of this three-part series on ACHIEVEability will run next week.
— Part 1