Better late than never; local man makes right with family, selfA recovering alcoholic may have turned his life around after nine arrests, eight for drunk driving, and almost losing his family -- all because of hearing a story of love lost due to drunk driver like himself.
By: Ashley Hall, News Intern , River Falls Journal
A recovering alcoholic may have turned his life around after nine arrests, eight for drunk driving, and almost losing his family -- all because of hearing a story of love lost due to drunk driver like himself.
Joel Sweeney, 45, of River Falls, says he has found his happy place.
After being sober for a year, Sweeney has managed to keep a job and his family since his release from Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility in April 2011.
“I had to make peace in my heart first in order to get sober,” Sweeney said. “I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m an alcoholic.’”
Sweeney’s realization came when he was in a support group called Victim Impact Panel at CVCTF.
A woman came into the group to share her story about how drunk driving affected her life.
“I never had something like that touch me the way that her story did,” Sweeney said.
The woman described to the group of inmates how her husband was killed by a drunk driver one night in Duluth, Minn.
She drove from Chippewa Falls to Duluth that night. There, she lay on a slab next to her husband’s dead body for two days.
“It immediately made me think of my significant other,” Sweeney said.
Bonnie Hildebrandt, 55, has been Sweeney’s partner since 1993. Hildebrandt and Sweeney have a 17 year-old son, Dillon Sweeney, together.
Sweeney actually first met Hildebrandt when he was only 12 years old. He was instantly attracted though their relationship didn’t begin for many years.
“I just knew I loved her,” Sweeney said.
After being deeply moved by the heartbroken woman’s story of her husband, Sweeney decided to change. The hardest part was admitting he needed help.
“I finally could see the big picture,” Sweeney said. “I had to lower my pride and say I can’t do this and take a chance with other people helping me. It lifted me up.”
During Sweeney’s time in recovery, he had to write to those he had wronged. He sent one letter to Hildebrandt and to his family telling them he was sorry.
“I never thought that they would forgive me,” Sweeney said. “Bonnie and Dillon came to my graduation. I also have a great relationship now with my mom and brothers.”
Upon Sweeney’s release from CVCTF, he enrolled into a Windows 2 Work program. It is designed to help prepare people coming out of incarceration.
Sweeney was then referred to Workforce Resource in St. Croix Valley. Patricia Miller, Workforce Resource consultant, worked with Sweeney throughout their three-step program.
“Joel took everything very seriously,” Miller said. “That’s what impressed us about him because he wanted to change his life.”
The three-step program is set up for the ultimate goal to be employment. The steps are as follows: 1. Job skills (resume training), 2. Find work (six month work experience with wages paid through program), 3. Direct employment (paid by employer).
Sweeney completed the program by May 6, 2011. He was then offered a job at Best Maid Cookie Company in the River Falls industrial park.
Now, a full-time employee since April 2, 2012, Sweeney looks to the long-term benefits of keeping a job.
Sweeney works in Best Main’s sanitation department. He sprays down the equipment and makes sure that the machines are ready to go for the next day’s run.
“I take pride in my work,” Sweeney said. “I take pride in my job.”
Since his work at Best Maid, Sweeney has lost about 85 pounds and almost 20 inches in his waist.
“This job and new life have improved my health and outlook on life for the better,” Sweeney said.
Along with remaining sober, Sweeney has set up goals for himself to achieve.
In the next three months, he wants to finish his GED and continue his journey with his Native American heritage through the St. Croix Chippewa Ojibwa Indians.
For a six month goal, Sweeney wants to talk about his passion of chainsaw-woodcarving with a man who shares this skill with him.
“He is off of Highway 65 and I just want to talk to him, get to know him, do more of what he does and get some pointers,” Sweeney said.
As for a year goal, “I want to propose to Bonnie,” Sweeney said. “She’s been through hell and back with me and we would be lost without each other.”
Starting at the end of August, Sweeney will start traveling to CVCTF to talk with a Victim Impact Panel and share his story with other inmates. He hopes to help others see the light and get back on a righteous and free path.
“It is up to the individual to change,” Sweeney said. “They need to realize when it is time to grow up and be somebody.
“I don’t want to be that sorry man anymore, I like being happy and I will stay happy. I want everyone to know that I am very sorry about what I done.”
Sweeney still goes in to visit with Miller at the resource center and remains in touch with the people that helped him onto his path of sobriety.
“I am always going to be in recovery,” Sweeney said. “It is something I will deal with every day for the rest of my life, but I am proud of myself for making it at least this far.”