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You buy a lot more than a Christmas tree

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By Kelly LeVan

Delancey Street is a whole way of life to those who had the good fortune – or the guts – to join.They used to live on the streets or behind bars. Now, they’ve moved onto a 17-acre ranch in the San Juan Pueblo. They’ve become craftsmen, caterers, movers, students, teachers and retail experts. They built their 38,000-square-foot house themselves, and take care of all the housekeeping themselves as well, oftentimes after working 12-hour days.No one earns a paycheck for any of this. And the residents teach each other how to stay clean and reclaim their lives. Like many residents, Cornelius McCaster, who heads up the crew at the Christmas tree lot at the corner of DP Road and Trinity Drive, found his way to Delancey Street through the court system.“For me, it was prison term after prison term,” he said. “I could do what I wanted in prison because I knew the system so well. I tried rehab in the prison system, but it’s completely, 100-percent different from being in Delancey Street. Prison is cakewalk compared to Delancey Street.”Delancey Street is “the toughest and the best sentence I have ever received in my life,” he said.For the last 21 months, McCaster’s been working both at the tree lot and in the moving company, as well as washing dishes and sweeping floors – in-house punishments parceled out by other residents for stepping out of line.“You have stubborn people – I’m one,” McCaster said. “But there’s no way you can go through Delancey Street for two years and not learn something about yourself. You have to learn about you – that’s the tough part, but you become level-headed enough to know it’s the best.”He said he’s “never been through anything so emotional – but happiness is one of the emotions, too.”McCaster has three more months before he serves out his sentence, but said he plans to sign on for another two years.“It’s our behavior patterns that are the problem – not the drugs,” he said. “It was just a lot easier being a criminal. But I like this life better … Without Delancey Street, I would never learn how to live.”Alicia Hernandez was probated to Delancey Street nearly four years ago, after a resident visited her in jail and interviewed her the program. These days, “I’m the one in the blues, on the other side,” she said. “One of the highlights for me is to be able to go into a jail – and then come out.”Through the program, Hernandez earned her G.E.D. in May and started college this fall at Northern New Mexico College. She also works as the head cashier at the tree lot, and sells pots, cardholders and other handcrafted items to businesses throughout the state.While spreading the word about Delancey Street, she said her and others’ efforts selling trees and other retail items helps keep the San Juan ranch self-sustaining – surviving without any government funding.In addition, “it teaches residents people skills,” Hernandez said. “We learn to get out of ourselves, to be able to talk to others.”Like McCaster, she has two children, and at this point in her recovery, she aims not only to improve her own life, but that of her 8- and 10-year-old daughters. “I try to be a good role model,” she said. “(My daughters) like the idea that their mom’s in school.”While previous attempts at rehabilitation didn’t work for her, she said part of Delancey Street’s success stems from one basic fact.“Everyone you see in here is another person just like you,” Hernandez said.Gone is the potential for hiding or manipulating; the other residents know all the tricks and will call you on them, she said.“We’re told raw how we are,” she said. “No one else would do that outside of Delancey Street. But the more you learn about yourself and your capabilities, the more you want to go all the way … It’s about making mistakes and fixing them.”Jaime Torres has come a long way the past seven years since he joined Delancey Street.“My life had really become unmanageable,” he said. “I did the 10-day detox program. I saw the drugs going around. I had a lot of difficult struggles dealing with people and family. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I came to get help.”Like McCaster and Hernandez, Torres has not found the program easy.Despite being fed up with his life, “I was scared to change,” he said. “I was scared of the unknown. I wasn’t used to it.”Nevertheless, “I’ve been able to push myself and I enjoy the person I’ve become today,” he said.Now, it’s up to him to set the example for the less experienced residents.Torres earned his G.E.D. through Delancey Street, and has completed three years toward his cinematography degree. He facilitates the program at the ranch and manages the tree lots in Los Alamos and Albuquerque. He’s also, as Hernandez called him, “the Barber,” or disciplinarian, bringing residents to “the Vatican,” or house sanctuary,” to call them out for bad behavior.But he is hardly the only disciplinarian. For instance, “if Cornelius (McCaster) acts up, “ Torres said, “18 of his peers will point it out … We have to teach each other to have integrity, to be honest and to get through the workday. One of the biggest problems in any workplace is people have to get along.”He added that the “pay value” of Delancey Street for him is “raising these guys in the house and seeing their successes … Delancey Street is going to put you through every kind of emotion.”He said he knows several people who’ve graduated from Delancey Street and now have families and successful careers; a few of them even run their own businesses.“That’s what I have to look forward to,” Torres said, but for the time being, he plans to stay in the program, both “for the challenge and to give back … I’m grateful there’s a place like Delancey Street.”The Los Alamos tree lot is open from 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. seven days a week through Christmas Eve. Delancey Street also has a lot in Española, two in Santa Fe and two in Albuquerque.To find out more about Delancey Street’s history, rules and goals, visit www.delanceystreetfoundation.org.