Jenn McLucas (facing camera) embraces resident Nichole Schuster after the first graduation ceremony at Brooke's House. McLucas serves as the clinical director for the long-term treatment facility in Hagerstown, Md.
Kevin Simmers tried desperately to get his daughter the help she needed to break her addiction to drugs, but he ran out of time.
Nineteen-year-old Brooke Simmers overdosed and died in 2015. After her death, Kevin Simmers — a veteran narcotics cop in Hagerstown, Maryland — was determined to create the kind of residential rehab facility for women that he couldn't find for his daughter.
Brooke's House opened last summer. It's tucked behind a wind-swept cornfield on the outskirts of Hagerstown. The women residents go through months of intense counseling and have access to medical assisted treatment. The first group completed the six-month program of sobriety, counseling and treatment in January.
Kevin Simmers holds a portrait of his daughter, Brooke, in the above photo from 2017 (You can see WAMU's 2017 story and video here). In the background is the stone house and the field where he built Brooke's House for women trying to overcome addiction. "I see and hear Brooke in every one of [the residents], where they were desperate ... where they came in here and feel worthless," Simmers says. "All's I'm trying to do now is I'm trying to give each one of these ladies something ... that I was not able to give to my own daughter. Every single day I live with the guilt where I was not able to save my daughter."
In the photo above, Nichole Schuster, 36, wipes away tears as she delivers her graduation speech. Schuster, who says she has used drugs or alcohol since she was 12-years-old, overdosed and nearly died last summer. After completing a 28-day program to get clean from opioids, she entered Brooke's House as its first long-term resident in July 2019. "Something I never did before was work on myself. Getting clean, I believe, is the easy part. Finding what makes me tick and fixing that is the hard part."
In the photo above is a sheet of yellow legal paper with some quotes from women who were asked why they wanted to enter Brooke's House. Simmers wrote these quotes down and attached these papers to the wall of his office.
Maryland has been particularly hard hit by drug abuse. It trails only West Virginia and Delaware in the number of drug overdose deaths per population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"One thing that I think is hopeful is that more treatment is becoming available in Maryland and across the country," says Brendan Saloner, a health policy researcher at Johns Hopkins University. "But the staggering demand for services is nowhere close to being what people need from the system."
Before completing the program at Brooke's House, participants must write an autobiography of sorts (above). Schuster says she filled a notebook with the details of her struggles with addiction, overdoses and attempts to get help. She read it aloud to the other residents in a session that lasted two hours.
"I didn't get any sleep the night before," she says. "Just the anticipation that you have to read an autobiography in front of everybody is one thing. I was really embarrassed on some things that I had to share, and there were some things that I wanted to opt out on reading, but ... if I want to heal from any of this, I've got to learn to share."
Addiction counselor Irene Danjolu (above) holds Schuster's hand, congratulating her after Schuster read from her autobiography. "You're one of the most courageous people I've met," Danjolu told her. "You can't help some of the things that have happened to you in your life and yet today you take responsibility by meeting it and doing something about your transformation."
The evening before graduation day, Schuster (above) and three other residents move their belongings from Brooke's House to a transitional group house they will share. "Moving out and going to the transitional house, it will be a new thing for me," Schuster says, "'Cause my whole thought process ... my whole feelings of life in general, just feels so different than it has before. And it's from the structure and having a purpose in life."
The graduation ceremony (seen in the two photos above) was packed with family and friends, other program residents and Brooke's House staff. After the graduates gave their farewell speeches, Schuster and other residents take in a group hug.
"I just know that we, myself and the five other girls that's graduating with me, has earned every moment," Schuster says. "We're about to experience a new chapter in our life."
Horses were brought to Brooke's House as a post-ceremony surprise (above). Each of the graduating women rode horseback around the property as a symbol of their new journey. "Stepping into a new way of life," was one of the cheers.
Schuster shows the tattoos on her wrists in the photo above. A close friend known for a large "Live Free" tattoo on his back died from an overdose in 2012. She and other friends got the words inked on their bodies in his memory.
Brooke's House residents attend weekly services at Lifehouse Church in Hagerstown. In the photo above, Schuster is baptized in front of the congregation. Also baptized were several of the residents and staff of Brooke's House, as well as its founder, Kevin Simmers. Schuster says that it was, "A great way to start a new life, great to cleanse ... and start anew."
At her new transitional home, Schuster visits with her daughter. "I can see how proud she is of me," Schuster says of her daughter, Cadence. "By how she looks at me, by hugging me and giving me kisses on the cheek, which she used to never do ... she is showing me that I am doing something right."
The passage of time is one of Schuster's markers for success in her journey to sobriety. Talking to one of her housemates, she said, "I've never made it this far before. In February I'll have 8 months [sober], 4 months left after that and I'll have a year. A year, oh my God."