the ups-and-downs and sides-to-sides of the little things that make up life
At 5-feet, 8-inches, 30-year-old Robert Gadek is rarely the tallest man in any room – but his presence is huge.
His deep blue eyes flash when he speaks, and the words flow out with the magic more akin to a motivational speaker or a Wall Street broker.
Listening and watching, it is hard to believe that three years ago, Gadek was a homeless drug addict – busted with his wife and their 18-month daughter for panhandling outside a Homestead Burger King.
After hitting that bottom together and losing custody of their child, the Gadeks have battled back from the edge of penniless addiction – fighting the doubts of nearly everyone including, sometimes, themselves.
After getting some help along the way – most notably from Carrfour, a non-profit group that helps get the homeless off the streets – the Gadeks are now a hardworking family of four, and business owners to boot.
“It’s an amazing story,’’ said Nancy Gordon, spokeswoman for Carrfour. “But it proves people can turn their lives around.’’
Robert Gadek’s story began on a small chicken farm in Poland. At 7, he came to the United States with his grandfather. He was 16 when he took LSD for the first time in New York City. He never got a chance to try pot.
By 18, Robert had turned to cocaine and a friend soon convinced him that heroin was much more effective and cheaper.
“Cocaine was my close friend, but heroin was my best friend,” Robert said.
By1996, Robert was living in South Florida when he met his future wife Maria, who is now 27. She was visiting from Nicaragua and the couple got married in four days – because Maria, who barely knew English, said, “I love you” instead of “I like you.”
As a new couple, they lived beyond their means and the new house and two new cars soon became too much for the Gadeks, who were waiters at Bennigan’s.
Soon, Robert Gadek was in a maintenance program trying to kick heroin, but it didn’t take long until he was hooked again – on cocaine.
“I told myself it was okay because it wasn’t heroin,” Robert said.
Maria Gadek had never done drugs, until New Year’s Eve in 1998, when she was seven months pregnant with their first daughter, Ashley. Maria said she never intended to do cocaine again, but when she ran out of painkillers after having her C-section, the white powder beckoned.
After that, she was hooked.
Soon, they were overwhelmed by all the payments and lost everything, having to live in abandoned buildings and supporting their $200 a day habit by asking people for money. The most effective technique was to send Maria Gadek up to someone carrying her young child.
The sympathic usually coughed up cash.
In February 1999, the couple – with Ashley in tow – was busted outside the Homestead Burger King. When cops searched Robert, they found syringes.
The couple was promptly charged with child abuse and Ashley was taken by DCF workers and lived with Maria’s parents while the Gadeks served their jail sentence.
After 45 days, they were released on five years’ probation, but violated their agreement by using drugs and went back to jail for 10 months.
As a result, they were referred to the Start Off Smart program (SOS) by the Homestead Police Department. Robert washed police cars as his community service condition and worked double shifts as a baker at Dunkin Donuts. The Gadeks attended parenting classes, met with caseworkers and completed probation requirements.
“At one point, Miami authorities had more of our urine in cups then we had in our own toilets. Everywhere we turned, someone wanted a sample,” Robert said, “It was us against everyone, even our parents and caseworkers.”
But the couple had made a decision. They were going to change, and be a family again. No drugs.
Eventually, they were referred to Carrfour, which was founded by the Homeless Committee of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in 1993. Its mission is to help find housing for the homeless and help them live independent lives.
Carrfour operates five programs serving 430 adults and children. It also has four projects in development that will enable the group to serve over 800 people.
Carrfour helps subsidize rent for its clients, but clients must pledge 30 percent of their income to pay bills. After 24 months, successful clients can opt to buy the places they are living in.
Carrfour helped the Gadeks rent and eventually buy their own home near Homestead. The organization also required that the Gadeks maintain jobs and complete their treatment programs.
The Gadeks not only got a home out of the deal, they also got Ashley back in August 2000. In October 2000, their second daughter, Andrea, was born.
That same year, the Gadeks got the idea to start their own company, Green American Landscaping, mainly because Robert said his neighbors were always asking him to cut their lawns.
The company took off, and now has over 200 clients.
Today, Robert still works 18-hour days. Landscaping in the morning for Green American Landscaping, preparing taxes in the afternoon at H&R Block and in the wee hours, he is a baker at Dunkin Donuts.
Maria works full-time as manager of the landscape company.
The Gadeks’ lives have come full circle.
“Now when we save money, we have choices. We can take family trips to places like Disney or buy another tractor for the company. Before, that wasn’t even an option, all our money went to buying drugs,” Robert said.
Although the road to the Gadeks’ success was lined with huge potholes, Robert wants others like him to know that there is hope.
“A lot lose hope after their kid’s been taken away, but for us it was the opposite,” Robert said, “Ashley was our biggest motivator for getting our lives back.”
People also need to realize that homelessness can happen to anyone.
“Sixty percent of the population is just two paychecks away from being homeless,” said Gordon.