Doug Henriksen '99 has experienced more than his share of life's extremes. He has been applauded and honored, abused and addicted. Three years ago he bottomed out: He was homeless on the streets of New York City, addicted to heroin and crack. "During my last six months, not a day went by that I did not stick a needle in my arm or smoke a crack pipe," he says. "I knew I had to get help or I was going to die."
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After saving himself from addiction, Doug Henriksen '99 turned to academics and work with local teenagers. He is the program director of Teen Institute, an initiative run by the Onondaga Council on Alcoholism and Addictions.
Henriksen reached out to his longtime friends and mentors, Barry and Debrah (Roth G'77) Shulman, who helped him get into a rehabilitation center. Since then, he has turned his life around, succeeding in the classroom and devoting much of his time to working with local teens. "It's been a lot of effort on his part," says Barry Shulman, a Syracuse attorney. "He works very hard-at his job, on his education, and on himself."
After cleaning up in rehab, Henriksen returned to school. He earned an associate's degree at Onondaga Community College and then enrolled in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, majoring in speech communication with a minor in psychology. He became a Dean's List student, VPA scholar, and class marshal, and delivered the student address at the college's Convocation in May. "Doug is truly inspiring," says his advisor, speech communication professor Deb Robson. "To come as far as he has with the adversity he's faced is astounding."
Life has never been easy for Henriksen. As a child, he endured years of abuse. He was constantly shuffled in and out of foster and group homes, and began dabbling with drugs as a teenager. Despite all this, certain events gave him hope and confidence: He saved a child's life using CPR and received a mayor's citation; he came under the care of his new legal guardians, Ted '82, G'96 and Jeanne G'79 Finlayson-Schueler; and he developed into a talented performer. At age 15, he was chosen as Onondaga County's representative to Peace Child, a performing arts group dedicated to world peace that traveled to Siberia. He landed roles in numerous productions with the Salt City Center for the Performing Arts and the Talent Company, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, Music Man, and A Chorus Line. "It was a great way for me to pass time," Henriksen says. "There's nothing like being able to jump out of your own life and into somebody else's for a few hours."
Today, the 24-year-old Henriksen has a new lifestyle. As part of his post-rehab treatment, he began volunteering with the Onondaga Council on Alcoholism and Addictions. In 1997, he received an award from Onondaga County for his outstanding volunteer work with the council's Teen Institute program. "I'm a very spiritual person," he says. "I believe I have a purpose, and if that purpose is to help one person change the way she sees herself or he sees himself, then that's what I was meant to do."
Now the program director, Henriksen speaks to thousands of high school students at assemblies and organizes the institute's annual four-day retreat, which drew 112 participants from 13 schools last fall. At presentations, he often shares personal experiences on such topics as substance abuse, sexuality, communication, and adversity. "I like to think it's a very positive, educational experience that gives people information and choices," says Henriksen, who is also a consultant for the Eckerd Drug Quiz Show. "You have to know yourself as an individual, love yourself, and give in a way that nobody else can."
Such messages are a crucial part of the personal philosophy that led Henriksen from self-destruction to success. He also plans to share them in a memoir he's writing. "Hopefully it will be used as a tool by people going through some pretty intense experiences," he says. "I want to show them they can get through it because somebody else did, by working hard and pushing themselves."
As for the future, Henriksen is focused on being a writer. He wants to study journalism in graduate school; do research for books on child abuse, sexuality, and drug addiction; and one day teach college. With Henriksen's self-determination, it's all within reach. "Your potential is limitless," he told classmates at graduation. "The only boundaries we have are the boundaries we make. I'm living proof there's nothing that can't be done."
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