By Mary O’KEEFE
Graduating from any college is a challenge between admission competition, ever increasing costs and the struggles of getting into the right classes. It is difficult at best but, when the path to the graduation stage is littered with drug addiction, attaining a degree can be even more of a challenge. So when someone does defy the odds and rise above, it should be celebrated.
“In high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Jeffrey Bellissimo.
Bellissimo is a proud 2013 graduate of California State University, Los Angeles. For him, the diploma means more than just completing the required courses.
“I was experimenting with drugs late in high school, [mostly] with marijuana, then progressed into methamphetamine,” he said. “I got hooked.”
The drug use began recreationally. “I smoked marijuana with a cousin and friends I played golf with,” he recalled.
Bellissimo said he didn’t feel there was a specific “type” of person who becomes an addict but what he discovered from his drug days was that he did not have a lot of life coping skills.
“I didn’t know how to have relationships,” he said.
He and his girlfriend fought – a lot.
“We were fighting all the time. I remember I was distraught and then a friend came by and said, ‘Here try this [methamphetamine],’” he said. The drug helped him forget all the fighting and stress. “I thought if I could just do this every day.”
That everyday habit costs money.
“It all worked well for awhile, then it got to the point that I had to feed the habit. That led me to crime,” he said. “I got involved with some serious crimes.”
He got caught by the police and was looking at long-term prison time. He also got advice to admit to his addiction.
“I was given the option to go to [rehabilitation],” Bellissimo said.
He started with support from his family, but there are some things that are difficult to share with family.
“I had to get a sponsor so I went to [Alcoholics Anonymous] and got a sponsor,” he said. “He was so great and so kind. He took me through the 12 Step [program].”
With the help of mentors, Bellissimo began to realize that he deserved a better life.
It was suggested that he attend Los Angeles Mission College.
“I liked criminal justice. I had so many experiences with the law,” he joked.
Bellissimo worked hard and found a mentor in Professor Kelly Enos.
“He inspired me,” he said.
Enos was with the L.A. Sheriff’s Dept. in Compton. Bellissimo is very open about his past struggles and when they first met he told Enos his story of addiction.
Bellissimo graduated from community college with a 4.0 grade point average. He went on to Cal State L.A. majoring in criminal justice. During that time, he took a class just to fill his schedule that entailed volunteering at S.O.B.E.R. International in Montebello. The non-profit offers support for kids, adults and families that include diagnostic determination and counseling.
“I volunteered for course credit. I loved it so much I [still] volunteer there twice a week,” he said.
He also volunteers with another counseling center in Inglewood where he works with former gang members. Volunteering and giving others a hand up, like he received, has also helped him in his recovery.
“I think [helping others] is the most amazing feeling,” he said. “Someone came out of nowhere for no apparent reason to help me.”
All his hard work has resulted in his graduating from Cal State L.A. summa cum laude with a major in criminal justice.
“I have been accepted to the masters program,” he said. He will begin in the fall to get his masters in social work.
A long way from where he was a few years ago, last month he was able to walk across the stage to get his degree in front of friends and family who had supported him.
“They cared about me when I didn’t,” he said of his family.
Natalie, Bellissimo’s mother, is proud of how her son has turned his life around.
“The greatest gift in life is realizing that you are the gift,” she said of her son’s struggle and success.
For Bellissimo, it all comes back to the decisions one makes and taking responsibility for mistakes made. He has some advice for kids.
“They need to take responsibility for their lives. I lived my whole life trying to blame someone else,” he said.
It was only when he began taking responsibility for his life that he was able to move forward.
“We are only one bad decision away from changing our life [for the worse] and one good decision away from changing our life for the better,” he said.