Julie Gagne sits in her light-filled, no-frills office at Square One in downtown Springfield where she is a Transitional Support Specialist, helping women along their path to recovery including that most important task – becoming a better parent. It’s a very different space from the one she once occupied.
Gagne, born in Holyoke, was the only child of parents who were addicts, she said. It was an early life filled with violence, poverty, crack cocaine and heroin. It became the life she replicated. “Growing up, my life was chaotic, full of violence and lots of trauma,” she said. “The people I looked up to were people in my neighborhood – prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. I thought they were cool.” Her life’s trajectory took an all-too-familiar path. The drugs and alcohol led ultimately to a 3-year jail sentence, her final incarceration at the Hampden County House of Correction.
She paid the ultimate price when she lost custody of her son and daughter, with whom she no longer has any contact. That brings her the most regret and tears spill as she points out an early photo of her daughter, Mariah, which sits prominently on her desk. Her daughter now lives with her father but Gagne doesn’t give up hope that she will see her again. Her son was adopted by a family.
Her work at Square One, she said, continues to help her heal as she connects with struggling women. She knows them. They trust her. And she knows the value of programs under the umbrella label, “Turning Points,” offered by Square One because they help steer women out of a no-win life.
Gagne runs the 6-week program parenting program for mothers who have been incarcerated or addicted, women she calls her “girls.” She knows their stories and how to help them work out of their situations. “The last time I was in jail, it was different,” she said. She attended support groups; she met people who informed her about post-incarceration services. “And I went to a lot of 12-step meetings,” she said.
She remains grateful to all the people who helped her along the way, while also honoring herself for the difficult work she’s done. “They provided the arrow, I had to do the work,” she said, "and, finally, the training wheels came off."
Her journey brought her to Square One where she said she “wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t go through all those things. I needed them.” She points to photos on her office wall, photos of women and their children who are making it, including one woman who has 11 children. One by one, social services removed them from her. Gagne said the woman defiantly told authorities, “You take 'em, l make 'em.” That attitude has changed, of course, partially through Gagne’s intervention, education and steady support.
"Some women lash out at her," Julie said. But she maintains her equanimity because “I understand the disease of addiction.” Part of her job at Square One is to help the community learn about addiction, its causes, its solutions. “We want to help remove the stigma of addiction,” Gagne said, “and take the bogeyman status away.”
Her own demons? Well, they occasionally whisper, especially, she said, when a summer breeze comes up and she thinks of popping a cold one. “I can’t do it,” she said. “I break out in criminal behavior,” she laughed.