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According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, one in four Americans will have an alcohol or drug problem at some point in their lives. Ninety percent of adults who are currently addicted started smoking, drinking or using drugs before the age of 18. If that isn’t concerning enough, CASA also found that the number of teen illegal drug users in the U.S., which had previously dropped from a high of 3.3 million in 1979 to a low of 1.1 million in 1992, more than doubled to 2.6 million in 2005. Those users make up the 75 percent of all high school students that have used alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, 20 percent of whom are addicted. Only about 10 percent ever fully recover, according to the research.

Matt Blenker is part of that 10 percent.

His addictions began around age 11 when he was in seventh grade at Holland Middle School, but they spawned from things that happened at a much younger age.

When Matt was 4 years old, his brother died.

“After that my parents and family like just kind of went downhill,” Matt, 18, said. “There was a lot of fighting and yelling over money. I have two older sisters and when I was around 9 or 10, my one sister packed up and moved to Florida ’cause she couldn’t deal with all the fighting anymore.”

With only him and his sister Nikki left at home, the problems in the Blenker family escalated. Nikki would go out with her friends often, leaving Matt home to watch the fights between his parents.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Matt said. “I was so young. I couldn’t do anything about it really.” His dad ended up leaving, “and I didn’t see him for a year or two after that.”

With his father gone and his sister coping with the family troubles by being with friends, young Matt was left home alone a lot. He felt helpless watching his mother deal with her own problems.

“I just felt really alone, like I didn’t have anyone,” Matt said. “I had really good friends at school. We always scored high grades and played sports and stuff … They started noticing something was wrong with me but I never told them what was wrong with me because I didn’t want them to know, but I knew word got out because it was such a small town; everybody knew everything that happened.”

Matt isolated himself from everyone.

“I just kinda got fed up with everyone asking me what’s wrong,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I shut down and tried to force those friends out of my life.”

That’s when his grades began to drop; his whole attitude on life changed. Matt just didn’t care anymore. He looked for an escape, which he found when he made some new friends. Matt noticed a difference between them and other kids. They seemed “cooler” to him.

“I would hang out in the town with them and go skateboarding,” he said. “They would go off and come back and I noticed something was different. Then one day I went with them. I saw they were smoking weed.”

They offered some to Matt. Although Matt refused at first, he couldn’t help wanting the happiness these kids seemed to have and so he soon gave in to the temptation.

“I wanted to try it,” Matt said. “It took away a lot of my problems. I thought I didn’t have to deal with it ’cause I was high. I started smoking a lot, like every day. I was only 12.”

The biggest instigator in Matt’s life was the emptiness he felt because of his family issues. When his mother brought home a new boyfriend, who moved in with his 15-year-old son, Matt, then 13, smoked cigarettes with the other boy. It wasn’t long before he offered Matt “something new.” Those words began Matt’s stint with cocaine.

Of course, a 13-year-old without a job can’t afford a cocaine addiction for long.

“I started going into school to find kids with ADHD problems and stuff like that,” Matt said. “Everyone always told me Adderall and Ritalin were ‘poor man’s coke’ because it was the same feeling but cheaper … but after awhile I couldn’t put up with staying up for days and days.”

So with the help of a friend, he moved into his next drug adventure.

“My friend told me he got Lortabs from his mom, so I went to his house and tried it. I felt nothing. I felt completely numb. I loved that feeling,” he said. “My friend’s mom would call me in the bathroom and she would have Lortabs for me. I thought that was awesome ’cause I was getting high with a parent.”

Soon Matt was taking eight or nine Lortabs at a time. When he realized he couldn’t take so many, he resolved to switch to something new.

“My friend’s dad broke his back and he was getting morphine. So my friend would get that from his mom,” Matt said.

All this happened before Matt even began high school. His drug use caused him to fail eighth grade and he had to go to summer school.

Matt said he would go to school and yell profanities at his teachers.

“They would ask me what’s wrong and say, ‘This isn’t you. You’re a good kid.’ I would never say anything about how I felt ’cause I was just really angry and messed up,” Matt said.

Soon his actions in school led to his expulsion and Matt was sent to an alternative school. His lifestyle continued to lead him down a path of destruction which included overdosing on Xanax while at school.

“I remembered I was threatening the paramedics and the police, so they handcuffed me and took me to ECMC,” he said. “I went back home, slept for a day and woke up the next day and thought nothing of it.”

Matt was expelled again at age 15. He earned his GED diploma and continued his partying lifestyle.

“Everything escalated,” he said. “I was doing the opiates and the pills and I was drinking a lot more. I got sick of the friends I had because I thought they were just using me for my money and my drugs.”

His answer to this was simple: switch friends.

“My new friends were doing a lot of different drugs,” Matt said. “They were going to pharmacies and stealing cough and cold medicine. When I tripped for the first time on cold medicine, I thought I had the world but really I was just high. It made no sense.”

Matt didn’t realize his lifestyle didn’t make much sense until he had a rude awakening after throwing a party. His friend’s brother got into a fight that didn’t end well.

“My friend’s little brother got hit and fell back and hit his head on the concrete,” Matt said. “He got Mercy Flighted to ECMC. He was in a coma for three weeks and had a blood clot in his brain. I remember going to see him. He was a great kid, everyone loved him and to see him with all those tubes coming out of his head; it destroyed me. I felt like it was my house, I should have done something.”

Matt’s guilt perpetuated his drug use. However, he was brought up on charges in connection with the party.

“When I went in front of the judge, he looked at me and said, ‘You can either go do your time in jail or you can go to Renaissance House.’ Of course I wanted to do rehab,” Matt said. “The district attorney didn’t feel I should be released, but the judge looked at me and he, like, screamed at me, saying, ‘Why should I let you back on the streets? You’re burglarizing homes. Why should I even let you go?’ I couldn’t even answer, but he released me anyway. I went into rehab April 12, 2012. I went in kinda open-minded and willing.”

Matt was at Renaissance House, a residential treatment facility in West Seneca for teens addicted to drugs and alcohol, for three months until he had another court date. He was sentenced to a year in prison, and that hit him hard.

“My past came back to get me,” Matt said. He tried to explain to the judge “that I was in Renaissance House, trying to better myself but he told me that I made my decisions and I had to sleep with it now.”

While in jail, Matt’s sentence was reduced to 40 days.

“I was still scared,” he said. “I was just tired of everything. Then I learned in Renaissance House that I couldn’t be able to help myself until I finally surrendered. I went to church one night and got on my knees and prayed. I fully surrendered. I asked God to help me.”

Apparently Matt’s prayers were answered.

“I went back in Renaissance House Aug. 20, 2012. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that place and Kids Escaping Drugs.”

Matt began talking to kids in schools about his story and he graduated from the program Feb. 15. Matt moved to a halfway house and continues to share his story.

Kids Escaping Drugs helped him get accepted and earn a scholarship to Trocaire College, where he will study hospitality management.

Matt’s sister Nikki Blenker, 22, looks at this whole story as a learning life experience.

“It made me want to better myself to be a better role model for him and to have a better family life because we didn’t really have that,” Nikki Blenker said.

Matt and Nikki are close now and see each other almost every weekend. Despite the horrible things Matt has experienced and the distance family troubles and drugs put between them, the siblings have come together to support each other.

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Kids Escaping Drugs and the Western New York National Honor Society chapters are teaming up for the 20th annual Walk for Kids from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday at Medaille College, 18 Agassiz Circle. All proceeds from the walk will benefit the Renaissance Campus, which includes three residential buildings where 62 young patients are given the opportunity to learn to rebuild their lives. For information, call 827-9462 or visit www.makeachangewny.org.

Hannah Gordon is a senior at Immaculata Academy.