Helping young people recover from addiction

Donald “Wiz” Allred, right, poses for a portrait with William Canning of Santa Fe. Allred, who is one of The Santa Fe New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference, was a mentor to Canning. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Donald “Wiz” Allred doesn’t sleep much.

His kids tend to call at all hours — and he has a lot of them.

Allred, 56, has devoted much of the last two decades to mentoring young people trying to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. Now president of the board of Youth Heartline, a nonprofit based in Taos that provides a court-appointed advocate as well as a range of other services for young offenders in northeastern New Mexico, Allred is carrying on the heart-rending work of helping Taos-area youngsters get clean and sober.

He has worked with more than 350 mentees. Some have been referred by counselors and some he met through drug court or at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Others were brought to him by parents or grandparents looking for someone who could help the family break the cycle of addiction.

“[Allred] has worked with hundreds of young men and boys who had no other support, guidance or people willing to put these young men back on a good road to becoming contributing members of society,” wrote Maggie Hanley-Welles, an arts program coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs who nominated him for the honor. “His empathy, sense of wonder, openness and acceptance has made an enormous impact in Northern New Mexico. There seems to be nothing he won’t do for troubled youth to ensure their success as they go towards the future.”

It is for that work that Allred is being honored as one of the 10 Who Made a Difference in 2016.

A graphic designer and stonemason by trade, Allred said it all started when he sat in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Taos and felt as if the room were split in two.

There were the old-timers — the regulars — and the young people who were ordered to attend by a judge.

One night about 10 years ago, Allred recalls, an older member of the group questioned whether the court-ordered participants were really serious about cleaning up. The next week, he helped some young people form their own meeting, which he then led for about seven years.

Allred no longer leads AA meetings, but continues with his volunteer mentoring, motivated by what he sees as a dysfunctional criminal-justice system that locks up drug users instead of helping them find treatment. He was involved with the youth drug court in Taos for 15 years, an effort he saw as helping young people get help rather than just punishment. Drug use is often the cry for help from those trying to numb pain that might stem from a sense of abandonment in a broken home or from the trauma of sexual abuse, Allred said. “Until you treat the reason they’re doing this, they just get worse. It doesn’t change.”

The letter nominating Allred cites some people he has helped, including a Taos Pueblo drummer who detoxed to become a thriving musician; a man addicted to cocaine who is now drug-free and pursuing an acting career; and two siblings who lost their father and began abusing alcohol at a young age.

Everyone Allred mentors must eventually sponsor or mentor someone else — take on responsibility for someone else’s sobriety and success.

“To witness the love and devotion Wiz has inspired in his mentees, one need look no further than Wiz Allred’s Facebook page on Father’s Day. Hundreds of messages and testimonials, a groundswell of gratitude rolls out all through the day, evidence of this massive positive effect on the countless lives of kids at risk. It will bring you to tears,” Welles-Hanley wrote.

“I think these kids really respond to the fact he does this just because he cares,” said Po Chen, executive director of Youth Heartline.

Allred moved to Taos in 1987 as cocaine and HIV took their toll on many friends in Dallas, where he had been living. Growing up in North Texas, Allred said, alcoholism was common but rarely discussed.

As part of his day job, Allred has designed art reference books, catalogs raisonné and show publications for artists like Gene Kloss, Walt Gonske and John Suazo. He has also helped steer Youth Heartline as it has grown to include neighborhood art programs and other initiatives.

On a recent morning, he was preparing to take in a young person grappling with methamphetamine addiction. The teen had lost a sibling to an overdose and their parents feared drugs might claim another child. So they called Allred.

But he’s always ready to drop everything for a phone call.

And kids call all the time. Many who have left Taos, traveled the world and started families of their own still keep in touch. Others are becoming parents. Swiping through pictures on his cellphone is like looking through a large family photo album. There’s a rock climber, an actor, a skier.

Not everyone he has helped has been so lucky; he has been to 38 funerals.

“Stabbings. Shootings. Shoved out of cars. Wrecked cars. Thrown off a bridge. Jumped off a bridge,” Allred said. “But I get up and do this every day because 90 percent of them live.”

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