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Second Chance program gives Sonoma ex-cons another shot at life

Lisa Aldana and Yuri Gabler wear T-shirts that say ‘Education not Incarceration. Second Chance.’|

Lisa Aldana and Yuri Gabler each wear T-shirts that say “Education not Incarceration. Second Chance.” They are students at Santa Rosa Junior College and they joined the Second Chance program there because they have been behind bars, more than once, and are now on track to live fulfilling, crime-free lives.

“At Second Chance we are supported for who we are and the changes we want to make to better ourselves.” Aldana, 47, said about the club, where she attends once-a-week meetings. The program offers academic and personal counseling, access to free professional expungement assistance to clear criminal records and a non-judgmental environment to help students who have been incarcerated turn their lives around and maintain sobriety.

“We are like a family,” Aldana said, which is especially true for her as she joined Second Chance along with her 22-year-old daughter Jessica, who has also seen the inside of a jail cell, and is starting a new, drug-free life along with about 40 other students in the club.

Aldana was raised in Southern California, the oldest of five children and the only one with a different father than the others. When she was an early teen, she was sent to a therapeutic wilderness school in Montana. She married at 16, had a son at 17, divorced at 20 and moved to Sonoma where her parents had previously relocated. She had been using cocaine and thought she’d change her habit and start anew. “I thought Sonoma was a small town and I’d get my life on track.”

Twenty-four hours after arriving she went to the now defunct Blue Moon Saloon and was offered methamphetamine. She took it. And so began a downward slide that would lead to her former husband getting full custody of her son and twice being incarcerated for drug-related offenses. There were some good years in between the first incarceration in 1997 and the second in 2008, including the early years with the daughter she had with someone she had a short relationship with, who had drug problems of his own.

When her daughter was 9, Child Protective Services arranged for the girl to live with Aldana’s sister, and she was not able to get her back until she was 11. “They had my kid and I still couldn’t quit the drugs.” Eventually she entered rehab and got clean.

Aldana has been drug and alcohol free for 10 years and has a longtime job as a caregiver, but was a drug addict for much of her daughter’s early life in Sonoma. She reached sobriety just as her daughter became a “wild teenager,” skipping school at Creekside High and dabbling in drugs. “Life was hellish for a few years,” she said, but now they have loving mother-daughter relationship and an upbeat future. “It’s a big fat second chance for everything.”

Gabler, 34, first went to jail in 2012 when his mother and the mother of his now 8-year-old son, who was 2 at the time, called the police because they were worried about his drug use. When the police showed up at his door he was high and behaved erratically, then struggled when they went to handcuff him, and he was arrested for resistance.

He said he started using heavily because he was “heartbroken” that he and his girlfriend broke up after six years together, including becoming parents to the son he adores. He was also struggling with the death of his godfather who helped raise him and whom he deeply admired. He has never met his own father. He has two half siblings from his mother’s failed marriage who are 20-plus years older than him. He says his brother is schizophrenic and had been institutionalized since he was a teenager and his sister had a brain tumor when she was 2 and is developmentally disabled.

Since Gabler’s first arrest he’s been in and out of jail 10 times and the root of his problem was always the same. Methamphetamine. At one point he spent six months at Turning Point Rehabilitation Center, came out drug free, worked successfully in construction and reestablished a relationship with his son. Then he was wooed by a job making $30 an hour at a medical marijuana production facility in the South Bay. Admitting now that that was probably not a great idea he said, “I thought I’d be cool with it. I hadn’t used in more than two years.” But the facility allowed him to smoke free marijuana at break time, and he did. The return to meth and jail came shortly after.

When Gabler was released last August his probation officer got him into a home in Glen Ellen that is part of the Interfaith Shelter Network. He was able to live there free for six months. “It is a sober living environment where you have to use a Breathalyzer,” he said. While there he was able to find a job at a bakery, as he had learned to bake while an exchange student in Germany during his junior year at Summerfield Waldorf School.

When he graduated from high school he earned a scholarship to attend a summer art program at Valencia Art Institute. Recently he has returned to his art, taking art classes at SRJC. Last month through Second Chance he was able to show his work at the Rejuvenation Art Event at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. He wants to find a way to combine his art talent and construction skills for a future career. And now he is enjoying making pastries on the midnight shift, ensuring they’re warm and ready in the morning.

Gabler spends many weekends with his son, attends all his Little League games, and is an active parent at his school. “Second Chance is moving me in the right direction. They are launching me into success,” he said.

Aldana is equally optimistic, and has in common with Gabler an almost constant smile. While their stories are troubling, they each want to own and recognize their past as they walk confidently forward.

Aldana’s life has been good for a while, and her hopes are gigantic for her daughter. She is studying to be an advocate for at-risk youth, and is active at New Vintage church. “I love my life, myself, my kid. I love everybody, really,” she said. “When I look back now I think I was always trying to get my life together, but until I learned coping skills the drugs would not stop. Now I believe in staying present in the moment, telling the truth and respecting whatever comes and treating everyone with love and kindness.”

Rhonda Findling, the Second Chance program coordinator and a counselor to its members, is rooting for Aldana and Gabler. “Lisa has really stepped up and volunteers to help with everything and brings a lot of enthusiasm. And Yuri is a really talented artist and that is so exciting.”

And, besides helping individuals, Findling points out the program makes a broad contribution.

“When you turn people’s lives around you improve the whole community because it reduces crime,” said Findling. “And that helps everybody.”

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