by Erin OdomBy 15, Drew Etler had lost her father, run away from home, spent a month homeless and survived captivity in a prison-like program that claimed to reform teenagers.Since then, the 39-year-old Lake Norman resident has spent most of her adulthood helping troubled teens and teaching, including a recent stint at N.F. Woods Technology & Arts Center in Mooresville.She took this year off from teaching to focus on two new ventures: finishing a memoir about her life, “Straightling,” and starting Teen Life Coach, an initiative through which she mentors Charlotte-area teenagers.“I went through all that to do what I do now for teenagers,” Etler said. “I worked to survive.”‘I took to the streets’Etler’s father died suddenly when she was only a year old, making her mother a single parent of two at 27.Overwhelmed with life and desperate for some stability, Etler’s mother quickly remarried. Her new husband became an abusive alcoholic.“All of my growing up years were really difficult,” said Etler, a Connecticut native. “I wanted to be with the tough kids because I didn’t have anything in common with the well-adjusted kids. When I was 13, I took to the streets. I just ran.”Etler spent a month homeless until her mother put out a warrant for her arrest. Once arrested, she spent the next month in a group home. Soon afterward, Etler’s mother enrolled her in a drug rehabilitation program in Springfield, Va., called Straight, Inc.“I had only been drunk once and had smoked pot five times,” she said. “I was in no way an addict or alcoholic. I was young and had been abused.”Straight, Inc. operated as a teen rehabilitation program from 1976 to 1993, according to the Surviving Straight, Inc. website. Hundreds of former Straight clients have testified regarding the program’s methods of public humiliation, sleep and food deprivation and many other forms of abuse, mostly done by their peers.During Etler’s 16-month stay, she experienced emotional, psychological, physical and borderline-sexual trauma. From day one, other children in the program strip-searched her, spit and screamed in her face and stood over her as she used the bathroom. They told her repeatedly that she was an alcoholic and drug addict. By the time Etler graduated from the program, she believed them.“Kids were brainwashed to abuse other kids,” Etler said. “The goal was to break you down and humiliate you.”‘I found where I belonged’When she returned to Connecticut, Etler didn’t feel like a normal teenager. She found her place among older adults in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She attended school during the day and AA meetings at night.“They really healed me, or at least got the healing process started,” she said of her group.But Etler had never really been an alcoholic, and a friend of hers in AA eventually figured that out for her.“Your problem is food,” the friend told her. She directed Etler to Overeaters Anonymous, where she received the help she really needed.The healing that began in those meetings when Etler was not quite 16 continued throughout her 20s. After attending some college and working several different jobs, she moved to Portland, Ore., when she was 20.“It was really a safe city for a person who was different,” she said. “I think it cracked the shell off of me. It kind of made me human again.”After four years in the city, Etler moved back to the Northeast and eventually made her way to the University of Boston, where her self-esteem grew through academic success, she said.There, she discovered her life’s calling while tutoring at an inner-city high school. “It was the worst of inner city schools, but I found my niche,” she said. “I found where I belonged. I guess I belonged in a war zone.”When Etler finished her degree, she continued teaching at the school. She excelled in the intense environment – despite trying situations. One of her favorite students during those first years teaching was a boy named Fritz, who thrived with her help, but was shot and killed one summer.Another day, Etler remembers, she arrived at school to learn there was a dead body on the football field.“Their souls were beaten down, and I saw myself in them,” Etler said.‘I have a gift from God’Before the start of her third year teaching, Etler met Eric on Match.com. Now her husband of 10 years, he was the first and only guy she met through the dating website.“I can’t stress enough that I live under a lucky star,” she said of meeting Eric.The couple moved to Huntersville five years ago. Etler worked in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools their first year in the area, and she went on to work for the Mooresville Graded School District for three years.“Drew possesses … an uncanny ability to relate to young people of all backgrounds,” said Luke Smith, a former colleague from Mooresville Graded Schools. “(She’s) a fantastic mentor for young people.”Etler is currently editing her book, “Straightling,” which she hopes will be published next year. She’s been mentoring through Teen Life Coach since June.She feels blessed to be living out her dreams of helping troubled teens.“I have a gift from God,” she said. “I have a vision for positivity.”

0
0
0
0
0

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.