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Our story starts in a tent in the woods of Woonsocket. Here, Normand Cartier lives — homeless, alcoholic and disconnected from his family. Fast forward two years. The story gets better.

Norman Cartier looking at a document.
Normand worked with the Crossroads staff in Vocational Services to learn skills and find employment.

Cartier’s on a plane. He’s flying to Texas, California, Florida and Iowa. He’s attending film festivals and speaking to crowds that invariably rise to their feet, fight back tears, and applaud — not necessarily for what Cartier says, but for what he does: simply show up.

“I should be dead,” Cartier says.

Something remarkable happened to Cartier. He lived. He recovered.

And last night, at the annual meeting of Crossroads Rhode Island, Cartier spoke. He talked about his recent transformative experience, which you can see for yourself in Lost in Woonsocket.

The just-released documentary movie airs for one showing May 12 at the Stadium Theatre, in Woonsocket. It’s a fundraiser for Crossroads and Matthew 25 in Woonsocket, organizations that provide services to the homeless.

Cartier steals the show. He overcomes his addiction, reconnects with his family after 13 years and returns to society.

“A lot of things about this I still don’t understand,” Cartier says. “The whole thing, from beginning to end, blows my mind.”

What happened to Cartier, now 47 and living in transitional housing in Pawtucket, is as unlikely as how it happened: randomly.

Perhaps Cartier found intervention, salvation and redemption. More accurate, they found him. They pulled up in a green Ford pickup two years ago, disguised as two 30-something guys accompanied by a camera crew and a support staff.

Collectively, they were called Random1.

“The people from Random1 aren’t real,” Cartier says. “They came down from heaven.”

Actually, they came from Maryland. There, the group produced the A&E TV series Random1, which ran for 10 episodes in 2005. The production company traveled the country, randomly found people in need of help, and offered it — not with money but encouragement.

“Philanthropy does not have anything to do with money,” says John Chester, who co-produced the show and this film with André Miller. “Philanthropists would like you to think that’s the definition. But philanthropy means the love of humanity.”

Love alone can’t conquer alcoholism. Chester admits that. But, he says, a loving nudge can mean the difference between alcoholics availing themselves of services or not. However, services aren’t always available. This is particularly true of beds at long-term rehabilitation centers.

Before 2005, Cartier had entered detox treatment centers more than a dozen times, but never once went to rehab.

“In order to get into a long-term program, you’ve got to find a bed,” Cartier says. “It could take two days, two weeks or two months.”

The wait proves too much for most, according to Cartier.

“People lose hope.”

They return to drinking.

“Detox is a spin dry,” Cartier says. “You can’t take a guy of my caliber, put him in detox for five days, give him fifty cents and put him back on the street and expect him to get better.”

The randomness began on Route 95. Chester and Miller were heading down the highway. Miller saw a sign for Woonsocket. “What a weird name,” he thought, then swerved off the highway.

“He just turned,” Chester says. “He didn’t even exit on the road, but over the grass after the exit.”

Chester and Miller entered Woonsocket, parked and immediately engaged in what they call “guerrilla philanthropy.” They introduced themselves to Mark, who introduced them to Cartier. Both shared an addiction and a tent in the woods.

The people at Random1 doggedly hounded rehab centers on the men’s behalf.

“They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Cartier says. “They worked hard. They pushed to help people. It put you in a position that if you backed out, you felt stupid.”

Cartier went through five months of a rehab, which he calls work.

“It’s not an easy journey. You have to stay focused in yourself. In recovery, you learn to see your situation. In my head, beer means tent. It’s that simple.”

This is the first time Random1 took the subjects of their TV episodes and turned them into a full-length documentary film. But, Chester says, this is the first time they were so inspired.

“We were kind of cocky and had done this for so long,” Chester says. “I’ve been in back alleys with lots of different addicts. What happened in Woonsocket was northing short of a miracle.”

The movie is a compilation of two episodes of the Random1 series, the fourth week featuring Mark, and the 10th and final week featuring Cartier. The crew returned to Woonsocket after the series was canceled to shoot more footage.

“We knew we had to show the full story for people to believe what happened,” Chester says. “I think it will change the way you see homelessness. If it doesn’t change you as a person, I don’t know what will.”

Cartier’s clearly changed. No longer is he gaunt, disheveled and drunk. He’s clean-cut and clear-eyed, 17 months sober, a man on a mission. Through Crossroads, the former welder of 13 years and father of three has completed a three-month training program in printing and so far passed four of five tests toward receiving his high school equivalency diploma. Cartier has also resumed his relationship with his children — who are now adults — after 13 years without any contact.

Cartier’s not sure what he’ll do, only what he won’t: drink. Meanwhile, he helps others. Cartier carries a cell phone. When he encounters alcoholics, he asks whether they want help. And if so, he contacts detox and rehab facilities. He does for others what Random1 did for him.

“This is a gift from God,” he says. “God can grant gifts through me to someone else.”

After the 7 p.m. May 12 showing of Lost in Woonsocket, Chester and Cartier, among others involved in the movie, will talk to the audience, though Cartier’s actions will have already spoken for him.

“My story is an example of strength and hope,” he says. “My movie says that you have a chance. You can get your kids back. You can get your life back.”

(Source:  The Providence Journal)

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