In the past year, Cara Graca's face has aired in a public service announcement on the dangers of methamphetamine.
The former meth addict who was featured in the Mail Tribune's "Grads Against the Odds" series last year is now enrolled in college and working as a camera person for KOBI Channel 5 in Medford.
Web refer: To see last year's story on Graca and watch a video, go to www.mailtribune.com/grad/graca.
Today she's playing the part of Nerissa, servant to heiress Portia, in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" at Rogue Community College.
Three years ago, Graca, 18, was sleeping under a bridge in California during a methamphetamine bender.
"I feel like a totally different person," Graca said. "I cut my hair at Christmas and donated it. It was very symbolic of getting rid of the weight, of shedding the burden.
"It felt great. I'm really grateful because some addictions go on until you die."
Graca graduated from North Medford High School last year after taking extra early morning classes to make up credit she lost while she was addicted to meth her sophomore year.
Graca first tried meth at age 14 while drinking alcohol at a party. Her use increased with time until finally she ran away from home for three months in pursuit of drugs, sometimes sleeping under a bridge, and sometimes with friends.
One night, police who noticed she was hallucinating took her to a hospital emergency room in east Sacramento. She went through drug treatment and briefly relapsed two months later. She said she hasn't used the drug since July 2005.
In September 2005, her parents decided to move the family to Medford to give Graca a fresh start.
She won a two-year scholarship from the Rogue Valley Manor Foundation's Fairy Godmother Program, meant to help low-income women attend college, and now attends RCC full time, with an undecided major. So far, she's earned all A's and B's, she said.
She lives with two roommates in Medford.
"Things are probably better than I imagined they would be last year when I graduated," Graca said. "Once I got into college I started hanging out with artists and other people in drug recovery. That's been phenomenal because I've had a lot of support."
In November, she applied for an internship at KOBI to learn about becoming a camera person.
Creative director Scott Gee, who was familiar with Graca because of her involvement in the Meth Project public service announcement and other activities aimed at spreading awareness about the destructiveness of meth, offered her a paid position instead.
She works two times a week and receives financial aid to help pay for school.
"It's cool seeing the anchors doing their jobs because a lot of people don't get behind the scenes," she said. "I have an appreciation for how much work goes into news gathering."
Graca initially was considering modeling or nursing as a career but recently developed an interest in acting, which she may continue to pursue.
"Right now I'm focused on theater," Graca said. "I wanted to learn about it for modeling. I was involved in drama at RCC in the winter, and the director invited me to audition for the 'Merchant of Venice.' "
Her new hobby has been therapeutic in some ways.
"I love it," she said. "There is a lot of emotional work and introspection. It helps you learn more about humanity."
She is thinking about attending Southern Oregon University after earning her associate of arts degree at RCC.
Not everything has gone well. She said she's struggled with depression on occasion. She even flirted one evening with the idea of doing cocaine when a friend invited her to a party and nonchalantly described the offerings: alcohol and cocaine.
She said she immediately told him she couldn't attend the party, but then became momentarily obsessed with the idea.
"It was very interesting to see how my thoughts went from 'No, I'm not going to use it' to 'Maybe I could do a bump,' " she said.
She said she called her mother, Heidi Graca, and some friends to talk her through her struggle.
Then she did some yoga, which helped her resist the moment of temptation.
"It was just amazing after graduation how all these opportunities came up," Graca said. "All these positive things are happening because I'm making the right decisions."
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.