Getting Sober in Savin Hill

DORCHESTER, Mass.—At 26, Peter Barbuto found himself in a Cape Cod rehab facility bat-tling an addiction to opiates. He was despondent until the day he met Dan Ryan.

“He was affirming, very much so,” Barbuto said of Ryan. “Which was great because when you’re down in the dumps and a guy like that comes around; he starts telling you ‘we’re going to be all right.’ [It] makes you start believing it.”

Ryan, 69, and a recovering alcoholic himself, has spent the past 39 years helping people in Savin Hill and throughout Boston battle alcoholism and substance abuse, whether it’s reaching out to people, offering advice and encouragement, or making sure they regularly attend meetings.

“Most people are one job, or one person away from being okay,” Ryan said.

For Barbuto, Ryan’s words rang true. Today he is a treatment consultant for American Addiction Centers and has been sober for over six years. He says he still talks to Ryan about once a week.

“He was just cool,” Barbuto said. “He talked me off a ledge a thousand times.”

Ryan has helped many people like Barbuto over the years from all walks of life.

“I’ve taken professors to AA meetings,” Ryan said. “I’ve taken homeless people. The gap is just unbelievable.”

“None of us have gone through life without plenty of skinned knees,” Ryan said. “Emotionally, mentally, physically, we all had plenty of skinned knees.”

That includes Ryan.

He said he was first introduced to alcohol when he was 17 years old and soon found himself drinking three to four nights a week. By his mid-twenties he was a full-blown alcoholic.

“From 25 years old to 30 I got drunk every day without fail,” Ryan said. “I would have been a homeless guy in Pine Street except for a loving mother and father, that didn’t believe in throwing you out, tough love. They just held on that something would change.”

And on 19 March 1974, Ryan said everything did change. At the time, Ryan would go to the un-employment office and pick up people’s checks for them while they worked a second job under the table. In turn, they would give him $20 from the check.

On this particular day, Ryan said he was so drunk he told the unemployment officer he was the wrong person.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m a drunk. I don’t know who I am,’” Ryan said. “Fortunately she let me slide, she gave me the check.”

When he left, Ryan said he ran into a friend who offered him a ride home. By the time they got to the Rainbow Swash gas tanks in Dorchester, Ryan said he felt too sick and had to get out of the car.

“I said, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore. Please help me, help me God, I can’t do this,’” Ryan said. “I’m done.”

Shortly afterward, Ryan said he went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Dorchester and ran into a friend who was also battling alcoholism. Ryan has not had a drink since, and the two still sponsor each other today. Ryan said he still attends AA meetings about three times a week.

Though he was not supposed to hang out in bars, he says it was all he knew. This time, instead of leaving with a hangover, he left with people who saw how well he was doing and wanted a taste of sobriety.

Ryan said that through helping others find happiness, he himself has found happiness.

“There’s no better feeling then helping somebody out,” Ryan said. “I’ve had guys say, ‘You saved my life’ and all that stuff, and it feels good.”

“I wish I felt about myself the way other people feel about me,” he said. “I struggle with like of self. Other people love me; I can’t get there from here, whether it’s Irish Catholic upbringing or whatever it is. But from it, I feel a lot better about myself because of how other people feel.”

Along with getting clean, Ryan said he was also able to get a job as a court officer through the help of Boston Judge Theodore A. Glynn—a position he held for more than 30 years. He also found a source of strength: God.

“I’m a big faith guy,” Ryan said. “I don’t pitch a perfect game in life, but I believe in God. I be-lieve in God; God’s been very good to me and my sobriety and my family and my job.”

Over the years Ryan continued helping people in every way he could, from supporting those bat-tling to alcoholism and drug addiction, to helping people find jobs. He even made a lasting im-pression on State Representative Martin J. Walsh, who has known Ryan since he was a kid and once helped him deliver Thanksgiving turkeys to people.

“I remember we were walking up Columbia Road, and we didn’t have an address,” Walsh said. “We had a box of food, looking for this house. We were literally going house to house knocking on doors going looking for the family for Danny to drop turkeys off for Thanksgiving.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve known him for ten years of ten minutes,” Walsh said. “If you need help, Danny will help you. I’ve been in situations where he’s called me about someone he’s met on the street that he’s looking to help. “He’s one of the most caring, compassionate people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Although Ryan isn’t an elected official, Walsh said he still offered him advice, and that he fol-lows it. The two still talk about three times a week.

“Over the years I’ve wanted to run for higher office and stuff like that and the opportunities ha-ven’t presented themselves, and Danny has always said to me, ‘just be the best rep you can be,’” Walsh said. “And I take that word true, and I listen to it, and I try to do that every single day.”

Along with helping individual’s battle addiction or delivering Thanksgiving turkeys, Ryan also developed a strong relationship with the Dorchester Boys and Girls Club where he volunteered and served as the basketball coach of the club’s intermural teams.

“He’s not a tough coach,” Bob Scannell, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dor-chester said. “He goes out there he likes to talk to the kids, he helps mentor them. He wants to know, do they need help with anything, and he’s always there for them.”

Four years ago, Ryan retired from his position as a court officer and moved his family to Braintree. Though he’s no longer the club’s basketball coach, he still occasionally volunteers.

“He likes to come back,” Scannell said. “He’d rather live here…it’s important for him to come back, and he does as often as he can.”

One thing he has not retired from is helping people. Ryan still regularly helps people around Dorchester who are trying to get clean, and says it’s his greatest joy in life, but he feels he gets too much credit.

“I like a pat on the back, but I’m getting too many of them,” Ryan said. “I’m rounding third. I’m 69 years old. The best part of me is over with, I know that, but I’ve been flattered by people giv-ing me credit where its way over rated.”

“[There are] a lot of unsung heroes in Savin Hill, a lot of them,” Ryan said.

–Adam Sennott

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