IUPUI student and mental health advocate Alicia McNellye was awarded the I Have a Dream Award at the 47th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner on January 17. She was selected by IUPUI’s Black Faculty Staff and Council “because of her earlier drug addiction, numerous incarceration episodes, recovery, and now imminent graduation from the IU School of Social Work with aspirations to complete a graduate program,” said Regina Turner, the Student Concerns Committee Chair for the Black Faculty Staff and Council.
An Indianapolis native, McNellye graduated 33rd out of 267 students from John Marshall High School on the far eastside with a bright future ahead of her, but then the age-old story of boy meets girl ensued.
“I met a boyfriend and started doing things that I was not used to doing. It led to me and him deciding we’re going to move to California. We’re just going to get into the car like the Beverley Hillbillies and drive out there and move out there, and we did.”
In 1987, with a baby on the way, McNellye’s life appeared to be settling down. McNellye took on the role of a happy homemaker while her boyfriend worked. Her first child was born in December of that year, but soon after she began to notice a change in her boyfriend’s behavior.
“My initial thought was he was cheating on me. But nope; he was doing crack cocaine.”
At the time, McNellye was naïve to the effects of crack cocaine, but she knew it was important to her boyfriend.
“So the conversation went, so this is so important to you; I want some of this too. And that was probably the most fatalistic mistake I could have ever made,” she said.
The first time McNellye tried crack cocaine was December 31, 1989. She sold the possessions that had begun to fill her home to support her addiction until nothing was left. Soon after, McNellye found herself on an Amtrak back to Indiana, guided by the mindset that if she were to remove herself from the situation, she would be able to quit the drug.
With no true knowledge of addiction, McNellye quickly found herself back on the streets in what she describes as a “whirlwind I couldn’t escape” of drugs and stealing.
“I met these guys and what they did is they did scams at places like Wal-Mart and Lowes and Home Depot and Sears and would steal riding lawn mowers and heavy craftsman stuff and then return it. It’s called the ‘Return Game.’”
McNellye was the fresh face the two men were looking to recruit for their game. For a year, she played the ‘Return Game’ with these two men until she lost touch with the two of them. Feeling lost without the help of her partners, she found a similar way to accumulate money: she started “boosting,” a form of theft where a person makes a purchase of a retail item and then resells that item for an equal or higher amount.
In 1998, McNellye was arrested for theft and went to jail for the first time. 1998 was the year she recalls being arrested “nearly every month.”
“The courts never gave me any real consequences, and in hindsight, I think back on that and that’s really what facilitated me to keep doing what I was doing. Why not? I had never spent more than 30 days in jail. [Jail] may not have been the cleanest, but it wasn’t nothing I couldn’t do.”
But then came the day McNellye says she can never forget. Used to the routine of appearing in front of a judge, McNellye was ready to ask for mercy and express her desire to go home and take care of her two children, but this particular judge was not easily manipulated. He asked her if she worried about her sons during those times, a question no other judge had ever posed to her. She was caught off guard.
Unconventional questions or not, the judge sentenced McNellye to 18 months in prison.
“In that time I got a lot of clarity about my mind,” she said. “Nobody ever asked me why I did it. I never thought I had a problem because the thing about it is. [pause] I surrounded myself with people that got high so I was not abnormal.”
After serving nine months of her sentence, she went home and managed to stay clean for a little while. But McNellye soon fell easily back down the hole of addiction, which led to four more arrests between 1999 and 2008.
During her time on the streets, she had yet to consider changing her lifestyle, despite the harsh side effects of her drug dependency such as robbery, homelessness, rape, and the inability to recall important times in her life, such as her high school graduation or her birthday.
“I couldn’t remember life events that had just passed me by, and I had such an overwhelming sadness about it, but that sadness would only be temporary. But at this point I decided I needed to do something different.”
But her family and friends had written her off. Around 2002, her parents cut her out of their will to ensure she would not receive any inheritance, and were able to convince McNellye to let them adopt her youngest son, while her oldest went to go live with a cousin.
Following these events, McNellye ended up back on the streets.
“While I was out there, I thought about my kids all the time, and I would be so distraught that not only have I ruined my life; I’ve ruined two children’s lives.”
This realization led to prayer, which led to her finally seeking the help she needed. “I began going to meetings at Narcotics Anonymous Recovery program, and met some people who started to show me there was a better way to live,” she said.
She went to 90 meetings in 90 days, which built the foundation she needed to restart her life. She had her own place, drove her own car, and held down a job. But McNellye revisited the streets one final time.
Visiting her past while living in a new sober life, McNellye came to her ultimate realization.
“All those other times I had gotten clean, I wasn’t living. I was just not using. And I learned the difference by being in the homes. So after I went out that last time, I made that decision; I’m not doing this anymore…I created this madness that I lived in. And since I created this madness, I could create the sanity.”
After becoming and staying clean, McNellye had to face her most terrifying question yet.
What was she going to do with her life?
Familiar with the work of social services, she determined she wanted to help people overcome the same obstacles she had. Having firsthand experience and knowledge on addiction benefited her.
“Any type of scheming and manipulating that you could possibly think of, I’ve done it,” she said. “And all the bullshit lines and excuses, I said ‘em.”
In 2008 she enrolled at Ivy Tech, where she majored in Human Services and graduated magna cum laude. In 2014, she applied to IUPUI alongside many of her peers. Living a life of honesty, McNellye told the truth about her criminal history, but was denied admission to the school.
She called admissions to see what could be done for her to be accepted. She spoke with the Assistant Director of Admissions Matt Moody, who told her she would need to write a letter and provide documentation of her criminal record, a document she describes to be as thick as the novel War and Peace, to an admissions committee.
McNellye was denied again, so she became her own advocate and eventually was accepted into the school on probation. But then McNellye ran into another obstacle: after her first of four semesters at IUPUI, she learned she was had run out of financial aid, grant money, and had almost reached her limit on student loans.
After a call and recommendation by IUPUI Social Work head Dr. Gentle-Genitty, McNellye scored a job at IUPUI’s Office of Enrollment Management. There she met her boss, Kim Stewart-Brinston, who introduced her to David Heard in Career Services.
Heard listened to McNellye’s story and took it to IUPUI’s Black Student Union. When the BSU heard her story, they voted for her to receive the I Have a Dream Award at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner.
Today, McNellye is living a renewed life as student in the School of Social Work at IUPUI. She is a passionate member of the campus community as an Enrollment Office employee, where she works with students who have been rejected from IUPUI. She provides them with the encouragement and motivation she believes could have helped her during her addiction.
She is also working towards amending the ‘Expungement Law,’ a law that allows former criminals to have their records erased to give them a fresh start in Indiana. Her issue is that a person needs a valid driver’s license to have their record expunged, but if a person has so many points on their driving record, their license can be suspended for a lifetime, preventing a reformed criminal from getting a new start in life.
McNellye is a woman who holds within her a remarkable story of struggle and triumph. As the recipient of this year’s I Have a Dream Award, she has broken free from the clutches of addiction, and will be known not for her story of addiction, but for her one of recovery and strength.
“This is where I stand now. [pauses] I’m going to walk in my truth. And I realize and I understand to the fullest, everything that I went through and everything that I did makes me who I am today.”