Success Stories

Personal Stories of Recovery

Russell Moore's life takes him from 'crack to college'

Given his penchant for tinkering, it comes as no surprise that electrical engineering has proven to be a fit for Russell Moore.

Tinkering, after all, had become second nature for someone who dubbed his own life as one that went from “crack to college.”

It's also included stretches as a depressed youth, deployed serviceman, dependent addict, convicted felon and recovering vagabond along the way. But by any measure, Russell’s current role as a thriving student on the cusp of an engineering degree seems to be his most natural yet.

He certainly thinks so.

“That famous question that you hear in high school: what do you want to be in your life? I didn’t know until I was 47 years old,” Russell, now 49, said recently after earning Stairways' Hope is Real award, an honor granted to Stairways clients for achievement in recovery.


While he doesn’t consider his childhood to be a source of pain, Russell points to his father’s death when he was 17 as a traumatic event during his formative years. It was during his grief that Russell first felt symptoms of depression as he struggled to make sense of the loss.

After graduating from high school the following year, Russell entered the Navy and was stationed on a destroyer, the USS Kidd, in the Persian Gulf. His emotional state took another hit when he witnessed a helicopter accident that resulted in the deaths of several sailors, causing him to leave the military on an other-than-honorable discharge.

Returning to Erie posed its own set of challenges for Russell— “I just couldn’t handle life as normal,” he said — who began abusing alcohol as he jumped from job to job. While Russell can’t begin to count how many jobs he’s had over the years, each one came and went with similar behavior.

“After work, I would go to the bar every day and if I didn’t feel well, it would give me what I called ‘liquid courage,’ he said.

“That’s when I started to go to the crack house.”

Russell started abusing alcohol shortly following his stint in the Navy. Daily jaunts to the bar demanded a prominent slot on his schedule, and his use gradually spiraled down for the better part of a decade until, in 1996, he began using cocaine.

A year later, Russell faced drug charges and was sentenced to seven months in prison.

“That affected me to have a felony,” he said. “I couldn’t find a job when that’s attached to your name, and I couldn’t get back into the medical field.”

Even throughout his time of despair, Russell showed signs of his potential. He attended trade school and became certified as an electronics technician, using some of the same skills he would gravitate towards again years later.

Still, addiction continued to tighten its grip on Russell and showed no signs of letting go.

October 7

“Why is this all we ever do?”

Russell remembers the question his friend Tommy posed to him after suggesting the two get their fix per their daily routine.

He had no answer.

“I went home and I looked in the mirror for a long time,” Russell said. “At that time, I started to cry.”

For perhaps the first time, Russell recognized his drug use was a problem. But it wasn’t until he lost nearly everything and began living at the Erie City Mission — where his housing depended on his sobriety — that he began seeking help.

Russell remembers the day he became clean: October 7, 2013. And from the way he tells it, he replaced cocaine with sobriety as his drug of choice.

“The day I stopped, it’s like a birthday,” he said. “When I breathed into (the breathalyzer) I celebrated my sobriety and I wanted more of it. My day turned into a week, which turned into three weeks, a month.”

Feeling revitalized and emboldened, Russell decided to regain his driver’s license after losing it nearly a decade earlier. But as the tinkerer he is, he wondered what else he could do.

“I thought ‘why should I stop at that?’ So I got my commercial driver’s license,” he said.

And with that, Russell was off to the West Coast to learn the skills of a truck driver, adding another route on his life’s journey — one that was beginning to challenge Odysseus’ meandering.

Russell thought he had found his calling. He would be on the open road, driving his big rig to every corner of the country he ever wanted to see.

But his past reared its head once again. Just before he would earn his certification, Russell was notified he could not qualify due to outstanding fines associated with his crime years earlier.

“I thought ‘Damn, I was this close,’” Russell said after being denied at his latest effort.

Sent home with a bus ticket and little else, Russell once again found himself living at the City Mission.

Despite falling short of his goal, Russell knew he was onto something. While studying the trade, he firmly grasped the concepts and mechanisms of the machinery and was able to operate the complex equipment.

His appetite whetted, Russell started to wonder how far his technical skills could take him.

‘I’ve never met anyone like you’

While staying at the City Mission, Russell began attending appointments at Stairways Behavioral Health. Shortly thereafter, he found housing at Stairways apartments.

But Russell wanted to achieve more. He wanted something that would challenge him in the area that he had come to know as his strengths. He wanted to know how he would fare in a school setting.

Pushing 50 and having not set foot inside a classroom in decades, he was far from the typical college student.

To Russell though, his age and appearance were far from a weakness. Instead, they composed his strength.

And after applying to Edinboro University, he had to convince a skeptical academic adviser of this.

“Why do you want to do this?” Russell remembers the adviser asking him the first time they met.

Drawing upon a lifetime of experience, Russell decided to paint the adviser a picture of his life by writing an essay that described the journey that brought him there. It worked.

“He read it at his desk and started crying, tears streaming down his face,” he said. “He told me ‘I’ve never met anyone like you.’”

His ticket punched, Russell flourished in the classroom. He poured over every bit of information he could get his hands on and studied at all hours.

“I knew I was OK with being smart, I just thought I had killed too many brain cells over the years,” he joked.

This fall marked the beginning of the final school year before Russell begins applying what he’s learned to an internship. And while the end his formal education is in sight, if life has taught Russell anything, it’s that learning— and growing— is an endless endeavor.

It’s a reason why he now devotes much of the time he’s not in the classroom to serving as a mentor at Youth for Christ, a Christian program that takes church teachings to young people in need.

Despite the fact that he’s come to learn all he has mostly on his own — often times the hard way — he insists that he share all he knows with others.

“We have a responsibility to help people,” he said of his life philosophy.

For Russell, that started with himself.

"Stairways helped me to work on recovery, one step at a time." -Ron S

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