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Dan Cappellazzo/Staff photographer

Carisma Garrett, a care manager for Project Runway at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, talks with a young mother whose participation in the program helped to turn her life around.

It was almost a decade ago when a 14-year-old girl in Niagara Falls started taking drugs. Let’s call her Amber.

Even today, Amber’s not really sure why she started. She’d had a relatively happy childhood. But somehow, the drugs took over her life and by the time she was 16, she was taking handfuls a day. There wasn’t much else she cared about.

Until she got pregnant. Somehow, she knew through her haze of self-medication, that they would take her baby away if she delivered with a system full of pills.

She wanted to get clean, but didn’t know quite where to turn. “I didn’t want to lose my baby. I had to do something.”

That’s when she found her way to Carisma Garrett, who stepped in and took her hand and led her out of the darkness.

Garrett, is the care manager for Project Runway at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, a program created to reach out to the area’s young women between the ages of 14 and 24 in Niagara County, to heighten awareness and prevent drug and alcohol abuse.

Today, Amber is 23 and clean, the mother of a healthy baby boy. She says she never dreamed that so many people would want to help her. Now, she is happy to speak out about how the programs that saved her life.

She started her return to wellness by getting counseling from Horizon Health Services, where she started on a drug called Subutex, then later Suboxone, which enabled her to wake up every day and not have cravings and the shakes. Eventually, she heard about Project Runway and when she finally called the program, that’s when her life began to change.

Garrett helped Amber get assistance from social services, find an apartment, get on food stamps, and supported her emotionally when she went to college and earned a certificate in phlebotomy.

“I think of her as my friend,” said Amber of Garrett.

Project Runway, named for the idea of “taking off” to wholeness, was kicked off last year. It’s programs are based on research that young women don’t receive messages in the same way that young men or mixed audiences do, according to Patrick Bradley, director of public relations for NFMMC. He noted that the program has a “pretty ambitious community outreach program,” and both Garrett and project coordinator Sarah Obot are available to speak throughout the region. The program also works with medical care givers, to teach them to recognize addiction in young women.

“A lot of the program is us holding out hope for them,” Garrett explained. “They don’t have the support of their families for obvious reasons, drug use, stealing and lying. But if you continue to hold out hope for them, they know someone cares about them.”

Her caseload right now is about 80 young women. When she meets with them, she changes from her business suit to casual clothes, so they feel they are with a friend. But, not all her clients are as successful as Amber. “It’s frustrating at times,” said Garrett, who has a master’s degree in mental health counseling. “But I don’t stress myself out trying to force them to do something they don’t want to do. I work with the ones who want to work with me.”

Garrett said Amber is the beneficiary of many programs working together in the region, from the hospital to social services, to the workforce program at Trott Vocational called Access-VR.

That support has made all the difference to Amber, who doesn’t want the label “drug addict” to define her. “It’s time for me to have a different and bigger life,” she said. “I want to be known as an independent woman and a mother, a strong person. I worked once, I had a car. I want all that back.”

Amber’s advice to other young women seeking to make a change in their lives through Project Runway: “It’s definitely going to change your life if you want it and if you’re ready.”

For more information, call Project Runway at 278-4516.

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