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Kickapoo woman breaks cycle of poverty, drug use, prison

HORTON, Kan. - Rita Ramirez' story is an all too familiar one in Indian country, but hers has a happy ending.

By the time she was 13, her parents were divorced and she was separated from her siblings. Her search for security led her to drugs and alcohol. She said drugs and alcohol gave her a form of security - a prison sentence, but all that has changed. The 38-year-old mother of three has gone from the depths of despair to receive the Sargent Shriver Achievement Award, the first Native American and first Kansan to do so.

After being sent to a boarding school in Oklahoma by court order, Ramirez graduated from high school in 1981. She then attended what was Haskell Indian Junior College and graduated with an associate of applied sciences degree.

By this time, Ramirez had three children and moved to Kansas City where her drug and alcohol use progressed. She explained she lost her job and home and soon was on unemployment and welfare. Her fourth child was born in 1993; by 1994 she was addicted to crack cocaine.

"It was funny, I didn't start out doing drugs. I would go out with them and I would drink and tell them I wasn't going to do drugs. I would just sit and drink and they would do drugs. Then one day, I don't know, I just started."

In 1994, Ramirez was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and intent to sell. Her trial lasted on and off for nearly a year before she was found guilty and placed on probation.

"When I got arrested I was 32," Ramirez said. "I remember my mother got a bondsman and he asked me why I waited 'til I was this old to get into trouble with drugs."

She had no answer, but the nightmare with drugs wasn't over.

By 1995 she was on a downward spiral with her crack addiction. She spent 1996 and 1997 on the run with two of her four children, living in motels when she could afford it and staying with friends when she couldn't.

The police eventually caught up with Ramirez. By violating her parole, Ramirez had set herself up for a prison sentence. She served 19 months of a 2-year sentence, but it became a turning point in her life. In prison she participated in a drug rehabilitation program.

"What started me changing my life was getting out of prison and still having my children," Ramirez said.

She had two children, no home, no job. She said she didn't even own a pair of shoes. Ramirez said she knew the only way was up, but she also knew the climb wasn't going to be an easy one.

On welfare again, Ramirez said she heard about the North East Kansas Community Action Program's Total Family Approach to Self-Sufficiency Program and saw a possible light at the end of the tunnel.

In July 1999, she enrolled in the program. Her needs assessment showed what Ramirez already knew, she needed a job and a place to live.

After receiving employment counseling, Ramirez said she received help from Kickapoo Social Services to get a car. Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services got her food stamps and medical cards for her sons. By the time she was approved for Section 8 housing, things were beginning to look up. Ramirez had been hired by the Kickapoo Tribe for a temporary job.

Although it meant Ramirez would lose her food stamps and medical cards, it was a hand up. She still had to work second jobs to make ends meet, but by September 1999, she became administrative secretary for the Kickapoo Tribal Council.

With more money coming in from her new job, Ramirez struggled to get bills paid and clean up her credit. In November 2000, she received a financing package through the state of Kansas First Time Homeowner's Grant and a USDA Rural Housing Development loan. Ramirez became a bona fide homeowner.

Ramirez credits her father and support of the tribe for much of her success in going from the depths of drug abuse and poverty to where she is now.

Kickapoo Tribal Chairwoman Nancy Bear sees more to it than that. "Rita has quite a story. And it is a good and positive one when you see where she came from and where she is today."

Not everything was positive for Ramirez though, she has not been the only family member who battled drugs and alcohol. Shortly after her release from prison, her mother died.

"I got out in '99. I found her in June. Somebody had called me and told me about her situation," Ramirez recalled sadly. "Within a month she had died from cirrhosis of the liver."

Today her children are active in the Boys and Girls Club; she is re-establishing her relationship with her daughter. She is doing well financially and with her job. The future that once looked so bleak includes a national award and publicity for Ramirez, who is proud of her accomplishments.

"I have a stable job. I have money in my pocket all the time and I just like waking up healthy and clean."