“I was a hopeless case. By all intents and purposes, I should either be doing life in prison, or I should’ve been dead a long time ago. But for some reason, I’m still here… and I feel that I’m here because I need to be the voice for the hopeless, you know?”
As Orlando Vega sits on the sofa in his Stevens, PA apartment, he eagerly—almost giddily—tells his story with the enthusiasm of someone who lives every day just happy to be alive. Listening to him, it’s easy to understand why he now lives with an “attitude of gratitude.”
Born in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park in Chicago, Orlando grew up as an introverted child in what he calls a “really good family” with a strict mother. He wasn’t exposed to drugs until his freshman year of high school, when he started hanging out with the “cool kids” and fell to the peer pressure of trying marijuana.
His first use of pot quickly spiraled into a daily habit of getting high and drinking, often to the point where he blacked out. Then, Orlando continues, “I was 15 years old when I joined one of the big gangs in Chicago. I started dealing drugs— you know, cocaine, heroin, things of that nature.” When he tried cocaine at age 19, “it was an instant love affair,” he admits. “Up to that point, marijuana and alcohol were pretty affordable and easily obtainable, so I never saw any really big consequences. But when the cocaine habit took off, it was a completely different story. I was the kind of addict that never wanted to come down. I always wanted to be high.”
The quest to be on a constant high led Orlando to bigger crimes in order to get the money to feed his habit. On one winter night in Chicago, he held a butcher knife to a cab driver’s throat to steal money to buy drugs. Fearing for Orlando’s life, his worried family members sent him to rehab twice, and when neither program slowed his unhealthy addictions, they sent him to live with his father in Miami. “It was probably one of the worst mistakes we could’ve made, ‘cause Miami was one of the major drug ports in the United States,” he laughs. “I ended up homeless. I started eating out of garbage cans to survive. I was doing a lot of things that just haunt me to this day.”
The next two decades of Orlando’s life passed in a drug-filled haze. “I did the geographical change a lot, ‘cause I always thought if I went somewhere different where I didn’t know anybody, I wouldn’t use drugs. But every place I went I would always be able to pick out the guy who looked like he knew where he could get some. And lo and behold, I was off to the races in a completely different state.” He spent time in and out of rehabs (32 in total) and county jails in Texas, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
While hustling between El Paso, Texas, and Mexico, Orlando found himself mixed up with the Juarez drug cartel. “They were looking for American citizens, because they needed mules to bring over their drugs. I ended up getting caught and did my first stint in federal prison.”
Upon his release, Orlando eventually ended up in Reading, PA where he moved in with a girl he met online. Disowned by his family, he remained an addict for the next 29 years: “On and off, I was homeless for 24 years. If I wasn’t in jail, if I wasn’t in rehab or a recovery house, I was living in an abandoned house or under a bridge somewhere and eating out of garbage cans to survive, hustling every day,” he admits.
Finally, at age 43, Orlando ended up in the hospital in Reading, where doctors told him his kidneys had failed and if he had waited 40 more minutes to come in, he would’ve died. He spent five days in the hospital, and when he was released, he went right back to the streets and got high. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous—as he leaned against a brick wall near a Wells Fargo bank on 6th Street, Orlando says, “I heard a voice that literally told me, ‘If you don’t get help now, you’re gonna die.’ For some reason, at that moment, I just knew that I had heard my last warning. I just knew that if I didn’t act on it, I would probably be dead that night. I went to a pay phone and called 911 and told them I was going to commit suicide.”
Orlando ended up at Nuestra Clinic, a Spanish rehabilitation center in Lancaster. “I’ve been clean and sober ever since,” he says. “Seven years—the longest period of clean time in my life.” Since his time at Nuestra, Orlando has earned his bachelor’s degree and is now employed by the Council on Chemical Abuse in Reading, where he serves as a prevention specialist. “It’s really rewarding to be able to go into schools and talk to kids, to tell them a little bit of my story, because I want them to know that I do what I do because I lived it personally. I just feel really privileged to be able to do what I do, and I’m grateful each and every day, and because of that, I stay clean and sober.”