Love led cou­ple to end crack habit

The Commercial Appeal - - Local - COLUM­NIST TONYAA WEATHERSBEE

A sure sign of a cou­ple in love is when they can’t help fin­ish­ing each other’s sen­tences.

“Me and Keith, we’ve been know­ing each other since I was 8 …” Tracey Mill­brook said.

“No, you were 9, and I was prob­a­bly 14,” Keith Mill­brook in­ter­jected.

“Right … well, he was my cousin’s best friend,” Tracey con­tin­ued, “and we grew up with our own sep­a­rate is­sues.” That’s putting it mildly. Mildly, be­cause what the Mill­brooks grew up with were more demons than is­sues.

Tracey, now 48, was mo­lested by a rel­a­tive – which re­sulted in the birth of her first child three days af­ter she turned 14. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade to care for her son, and started us­ing crack co­caine not only be­cause oth­ers around her were do­ing it, but to salve her own sense of worth­less­ness.

“Those years were so horrible, be­cause my peers as­sumed that what hap­pened to me was con­sen­sual,” Tracey said. “But I was put upon by a fam­ily mem­ber, and so my child­hood was taken from me.

“But I had this beau­ti­ful son. My fam­ily had left me for dead. … I fell into drugs. I didn’t know what I had to over­come the most.”

And Keith, now 51, suf­fered through a child­hood full of vi­o­lence. He wound up with three sons out of wed­lock, spent time in jail and was also us­ing crack co­caine.

Yet while drugs and dys­func­tion re­united Tracey and Keith as adults, what un­tan­gled them from it was the love that they had kindled for each other as chil­dren. It put them on a path to­ward beat­ing those demons and show­ing oth­ers how to do it as well.

To­day Keith is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Bar­ron Heights Tran­si­tional Cen­ter, where he coun­sels home­less men whose shoes he has walked many miles in. Along with Tracey, who has di­rected grant pro­grams and other non­profit ef­forts, they op­er­ate We Are Fam­ily – a com­mu­nity devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion that men­tors and dis­trib­utes food to peo­ple in the Glen­view Edge­wood Manor, Or­ange Mound and South Mem­phis ar­eas.

These op­er­a­tions are where they pour much of their pas­sions these days, in quests for fund­ing and in boost­ing the es­teem of those who, like them, needed some­one to be­lieve in them.

“They (their men­tors) saw the jagged edges,” Tracey said. “And they saw the worth.” But back to the love story. Tracey said that when she was deep into her ad­dic­tion, Keith would be at the house where she often went to buy drugs.

“He (Keith) would smile ev­ery time I came,” Tracey said. “I asked, ‘Why are you smil­ing?’ And my sis­ter said, ‘Keith likes you.’

“I said, ‘What­ever.’ But he chased me for two years and fi­nally asked, ‘What will it take for you to be my woman?’

“I said, ‘First of all, you’re al­most home­less, you and your boys, liv­ing with your mama, with no high school di­ploma and no job. You’re strung out on drugs, so let’s talk about a job first.’ ”

But Tracey couldn’t rid her­self of Keith that eas­ily.

“Nine o’clock the next day, he went out look­ing for a job,” Tracey said. “Three o’clock that day he called me and said, ‘I guess you’re my woman now.’ I said, ‘How?’

“He said, ‘I got a job. And I got you one, too.’ ”

Keith said the feel­ings that he al­ways had for Tracey, plus a crav­ing for sta­bil­ity, pushed him to meet her de­mands.

“By that time, when I saw her, there was some­thing in me that said, ‘You need to get a mother for these three boys (he was rais­ing them alone),” he said. “I can’t keep feed­ing them bologna sand­wiches and plate lunches and frozen din­ners. …

“It changed the dy­nam­ics of my life, rais­ing my three boys. I knew I had to change.”

So they both be­gan work­ing. They also went cold turkey and quit us­ing drugs at that time, Tracey said.

That didn’t last, though. The hard work, the low pay and the feel­ings of not be­ing able to get ahead pushed them back into us­ing. So­bri­ety pro­grams didn’t work ei­ther, Tracey said.

But in the late 1990s, Tracey and Keith de­cided to make an­other try at sta­bil­ity. They en­rolled in GED classes.

“There were a lot of learn­ing ma­te­ri­als, and the GED in­struc­tor was just dar­ling,” she said. “Do you know that in less than six months, we were both walk­ing across that stage?”

Af­ter the cou­ple grad­u­ated in 1998, the in­struc­tor urged them to en­roll at LeMoyne-Owen Col­lege. It was there where they took an­other step to­ward sta­bil­ity: They got mar­ried on Christ­mas Day, 1998.

The cou­ple ul­ti­mately grad­u­ated in 2005, and have since earned mas­ter’s de­grees. They haven’t used drugs for nearly two decades now. Their eight chil­dren are grown, and they now have 17 grand­chil­dren. As I said, theirs is a love story. Keith and Tracey beat their demons with dreams of a fu­ture to­gether; a fu­ture that they re­fused to re­lin­quish to ad­dic­tion and low self-es­teem.

It is that kind of love that should in­spire those who are strug­gling to build sta­ble lives.

No mat­ter if they find that love with an­other per­son – or learn to love them­selves.

BRAN­DON DILL/SPE­CIAL TO THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

Keith Mill­brook, stand­ing, with vet­er­ans Larry Owens, from left, Ger­ald Jerry, Joe Chas­tain, Alvin Boyce, Chris West­brooks.

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