Throughout his youth, Kevin McDonald was searching for a sense of belonging.
His father was in the U.S. Air Force, which meant his family moved a lot during McDonald’s childhood. Wherever they moved, McDonald felt severe anxiety in his constantly changing social situation.
His life in the home came with another set of challenges.
"My mother was very, very abusive. Physically and emotionally," he told host Frank Stasio on WUNC’s The State of Things.
McDonald turned to alcohol to cope with his social anxiety and the violence in his home. By the time he graduated from high school in Los Angeles, McDonald says his drinking was out of control, so much so that his father kicked him out.
"My dad said 'My way or the highway,’ and so I took the highway," McDonald said.
He started abusing drugs in addition to alcohol: marijuana, acid, speed, and then heroin.
"When I started using heroin, it was a whole different world,” he said. “I had to adapt to it and survive...it was all about survival.”
Survival for McDonald meant robbing pharmacies to support his heroin habit. He was caught twice in three months. The first time, he made bail. But he didn’t the second time, and the judge sentenced him to probation and rehabilitation. McDonald says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
McDonald completed a rehabilitation program at Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. Inspired by the transformation he saw in himself and others at Delancey, McDonald founded the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers program, known as TROSA, in Durham in 1994.
The nonprofit helps more than 500 residents end their substance abuse and build new lives. The program provides housing, health care and rehabilitation for substance abusers at no cost. It also places residents in work programs. TROSA residents can work for TROSA’s moving company, lawn-care service, thrift and frame shop or Christmas tree lots.
“Work is therapeutic,” McDonald said. Besides work, the program includes many evidence-based rehabilitation methods, such as peer counseling.
McDonald says the goal of TROSA's methods is empowerment.
"It's constantly teaching people and giving them the opportunity to be somebody that they've never been in their life, that they have to earn everything."