Former addict turns life around after officer adopts her baby

Mom 7 months sober after attending FL rehab center

By ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT

OCALA, Florida - The words that saved Crystal Champ's life were delivered like a spear into the heart.

She had just arrived at a drug treatment facility in Central Florida in December, and a therapist looked in her eyes and said, "This is life or death."

"That really like hit me hard," Champ said. "My therapist wouldn't work with me if I wasn't going to take it seriously."

The message worked. Champ has been sober for nearly seven months and has escaped a life of drug addiction and homelessness.

"It's like a whole different world than where I was on the streets," Champ said. "I'm starting to make amends with people, like the wreckage of my past. I take it very seriously."

In September, Crystal Champ was living on the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had been homeless for two years, and each day was consumed by scrounging for the money to pay for hits of heroin and crystal meth.

Champ, 36, was also eight months pregnant when Albuquerque police officer Ryan Holets found her shooting up heroin behind a convenience store.  The breathtaking encounter was captured by Holets' body camera, and it would change the course of their lives.

Holets and his wife, Rebecca, offered to adopt the unborn baby. CNN first reported the story of this unlikely adoption in December, and it garnered worldwide attention. The story captured the attention of case workers at Mending Fences, a drug treatment facility in Florida.   

Baby Hope was born in October and is healthy. Rebecca Holets said she's starting to communicate and roll over. The baby is gaining weight and developing nicely.

The facility offered to help Champ get sober and sent Kat McLaughlin, a recovering heroin addict, to persuade her to leave the streets and her drug addiction behind. The intervention unfolded along the edge of an Albuquerque highway.  McLaughlin said that she has intervened countless times to help addicts into a treatment program and that Champ's situation was one of the worst she had ever seen.

"She was completely hopeless," McLaughlin said. "She was at the deep end of the spectrum. Using the hardest drugs in the most extreme ways."

Just before Christmas, Champ arrived in Florida and started a harrowing week-long detox process. McLaughlin described the process for Champ as extreme and ugly. But Champ did not give up and made it through the process.

"I'm so proud of her," McLaughlin said. "She left everything in her old life behind, and she's started completely fresh. Not many people have the strength to do that."

Champ graduated from the Mending Fences drug treatment program in March and now is part of a sober living community working toward living on her own.  Reaching the treatment center was an overwhelming accomplishment for Champ, who had once before been through drug rehabilitation and relapsed. CNN witnessed the first attempt to get Champ on an airplane and into the Mending Fences treatment center.

Champ unraveled inside the Albuquerque airport and refused to board the plane and said at the time she was content living on the streets as a heroin addict. For Ryan Holets, the moment was excruciatingly painful to watch. 

But a few days later, Champ changed her mind and boarded the plane, and she hasn't regretted the decision.

"There is no burning desire for me to even, like, romanticize about going back to that place, because I know I am powerless over my addiction," Champ said.

Champ has not seen the Holets family since she left for the drug treatment facility in December. But Ryan Holets speaks with Champ weekly, offering advice on finances and planning her future.

Champ described the Albuquerque police officer as a big brother.

The Holets family celebrates each achievement in Champ's recovery from afar. The adoption of Hope is open, and the Holetses said they will share the child's milestones with Champ. They also plan to be upfront about this mixed family's journey and said Champ will always be welcome in their home and welcome to be a part of Hope's life.

"She is in a great place," Champ said. "I know she is, and I trust and have faith that she's going to have a beautiful life."

Just over the bed in the sober-living home where Crystal Champ lives, she keeps a picture of the Holets family. She's always called them her guardian angels. And seven months after their story mesmerized millions of people around the world, it all still feels like a dream.

"I, deep down, kind of wished upon a star that something like this could happen," Ryan Holets said. "But this kind of stuff only happens in movies and books with happy endings. Usually, in real life, you don't see stuff like this."

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