Denise Mills overcomes addiction to help others rebuild their lives

By Cindy Pantoja, Staff Writer

When life hits you so hard you hit rock bottom, you are only left with two options — either give up and stop trying or you gather whatever strength you have left and become a legend.
Denise Mills decided to become an example of strength since she arrived in the Bay Area in 1980. She has overcome the most difficult obstacles, after finding herself in the shadows of rape and addiction, she re-surfaced to face the world with an altruistic spirit.
“I’ve always cared about people,” Mills said. “I’m always trying to encourage people, teenagers, children, grown folks too. It’s just my calling — my purpose.”
When she was in her early 30s, she suffered a work accident that led her to opioid dependency. After abusing prescribed medicine for some time, she developed a cocaine addiction that lasted 30 years.
Now, at age 66, she has been rehabilitated for the last six years.
“I had to get better for my kids,” Mills said. “I’ve been clean for six years and I’m very proud of myself because it was hard.”
Once she stopped using drugs, Mills completed a program at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond where she learned how to get back on her feet. After completing the program, she enrolled at Contra Costa College and graduated last year with multiple associate degrees in health and human services, sociology, liberal arts and behavioral science.
After graduation, she registered at CCC again this semester and is currently working on her degree to become a substance abuse counselor.
Mills is currently working for the organization Men and Women of Purpose. Her role in the organization is to visit incarcerated men and woman who are close to their release. She helps to prepare them to re-enter society.
“Most of these people had substance abuse issues. They relate to me because I have been there. They see me and they know they can succeed too,” Mills said.
The group provides housing, counseling and helps getting men and women who are released from incarceration ready for job interviews and, eventually, work.
The organization is led by men and women who have recovered, or are recovering, from alcohol and/or drug abuse, or have been incarcerated.
“Denise is a great mentor,” Men and Women of Purpose CEO Ivory Mitchell said. “If there is a fix to a problem, she is the one who will help you find it.”
Mills’ plan is to start a Men and Women of Purpose Club at CCC.
The group is partnering with the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE) to form a mentoring program where students are prepared to become certified mentors and help students in need on campus.
The CCCOE offers educational programs to incarcerated adults. It offers support while those in the program complete their steps to landing jobs.
“She is very helpful at brainstorming ideas and creating partnerships,” CCC Adult Education Transition Specialist Demetria Lawrence said.
Mills is a great example of perseverance and she demonstrates on a daily basis that every community member deserves a second chance, Lawrence said.