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Fish fry serves up better years ahead for recovery community

Bruce Duncan, Paul Billie and Lewis Gopher are a fish-frying force Jan. 23 during the 9th annual Hollywood Fish Fry at Markham Park in Sunrise.
Bruce Duncan, Paul Billie and Lewis Gopher are a fish-frying force Jan. 23 during the 9th annual Hollywood Fish Fry at Markham Park in Sunrise.

SUNRISE — Age meant nothing at the 9th annual Hollywood Fish Fry hosted by Seminoles in Recovery at Markham Park. Participants at the Jan. 23 food, fun and fellowship event in Sunrise measured their years in time free from drugs and alcohol.

“I’m at 20 years,” said Kelly Hancock, an addictions case manager of the Tribe’s Center for Behavioral Health (CBH). “So I have a vested interest in this event and anything else that helps recovery.”

Manning the fish table, Hancock sliced chunks of grouper and tilapia with Myron Azif, who boasted 32 years of sobriety. Azif began attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings on the Hollywood Reservation in the early 1990s.

At the fryer, with fish nuggets and hush puppies popping in oil, others busied themselves cooking the meal to the perfect point of crispy for nearly 75 attendees gathered for camaraderie plus AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings.

Charlie Tiger, a CBH supervisor who runs the Tribe’s We Can Recover Program offshoot of the independently operated Seminoles in Recovery, said meetings are essential to recovery – one meeting at a time.

“People can learn from others who share their experiences; family members learn about how they can deal with it. People come for help, they ask for sponsors, they learn from our testimonials how they can stay sober, too. No one is alone,” Tiger said.

To honor the AA and NA tradition of anonymity, only those who agreed to be photographed or speak on the record are identified in this report.

“The program is practice, not perfection,” said Helene Buster, who started Seminoles in Recovery about 24 years ago with her husband, Andy Buster, a retired Miccosukee Tribe judge. The Busters are in recovery for 27 and 34 years, respectively.

“The battle is never won. You take it one day at a time. It’s true that you won’t ever be cured because addiction is a disease. But like diabetes, you can get it under control. Our medicine is going to meetings,” Helene Buster said.

Jeremy Bowers, with eight years in recovery, described himself as an “active user” when he landed in trouble with the law in 2007. That was the day that changed his life for the better.

“It was an eye-opening thing for me, and I am so happy every day because I know some people just don’t make it out of the pit,” Bowers said. “It’s better than being laid in the ground 6 feet deep.”

Native Americans die more frequently from alcohol- and drug-related causes than any other race in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Related reasons can be overdose, accidents while under the influence and chronic liver disease caused by alcoholism.

The numbers are staggering: 12 percent of Native American deaths, or one in every 10 Native American deaths, is alcohol related. The rate is three times per capita than all other races combined.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reported that chronic liver disease was the fifth-leading cause of death among Native men ages 35 to 64 and the second leading cause of death among Native women ages 25 to 54 during 2013.

Fred Mullins, a counselor for Tribal citizens in recovery and youth at risk, said AA and NA’s 12-step philosophy, which is anchored in admitting addiction and placing faith in God’s power to overcome the disease, leads to “keeping what you learn and giving it away.”

“You demonstrate the (AA and NA) principals and doing it leads others to do the same. You start out as the person being helped and then you help others. That’s what Helene does. She takes the message and shares it,” Mullins said.

Meetings are held weekly at all reservations and communities. All are welcome, including people who want to stop abusing but continue to “get high.”

“We have people come in drunk and high. They know they want help but if they don’t come in, we can’t help them,” Tiger said.

Donations were collected at the fish fry to help pay for the organization’s upcoming 8th annual Florida Native American Recovery Convention at John Boy Auditorium in Clewiston. The March 3-6 morning to nighttime activities, workshops, meetings and entertainment will be based on the “12 steps and 12 traditions” of abuse recovery programs.

The steps help lead individuals through recovery one day at a time. Traditions, or guidelines for the support group, include promising to uphold the anonymity of others, not lending the AA name to endorse outside enterprises, and never bringing AA into public controversy.

Buster said about 100 people attended the first convention in 2009. This year, she expects about 500 participants from Tribes nationwide.

Mullins said all who struggle with or are in recovery from alcohol, drug, gambling and other dependencies are invited to the conference.

“Anyone can come. If a person is still using or in recovery or trying to deal with someone they love who is in trouble, it doesn’t matter. We are all in the process,” Mullins said.

There are no statistics available to the public that enumerate how many Seminole Tribal citizens currently battle dependency but community members acknowledge that too many known users have died young, suddenly and tragically in recent years.

“All we can do is help spread the word and let people in the Tribe know that a good time can be had without abusing. We don’t have to be the macho man who can party the hardest … We can relax, hang out, enjoy a concert, laugh a lot and come home alive,” Bowers said.

For times, locations and contact information for weekly meetings, visit