Kael Maness

Kael Maness is on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice in May and plans to pursue a master’s degree in cybersecurity from UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Kael Maness has been readying for this assignment since he first enrolled at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – and many years before that.

Maness, months away from completing his bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice, has been tasked in his senior capstone course with developing a policy proposal and demonstrating his ability to integrate theory and research as he argues for its implementation.

He wants to create a holistic approach to combat the plague of addiction through education and investment in under resourced communities while decriminalizing drug use.

“This is what it all has come down to,” Maness said, “and I want to be able to make a difference, especially in a city that’s so riddled with drug addiction.”

He knows all too well how destructive it can be from his own experience misusing drugs and alcohol.

‘What I thought was having a good time’

Maness, who had a family history of addiction, started using when he was 14 and quickly got hooked. It’s the reason he dropped out of college five years later, preferring to “get loaded all the time” rather than show up for classes at St. Louis Community College–Meramec.

“I was more preoccupied with trying to have a good time – what I thought was having a good time,” Maness said.

He worked different jobs and played drums in a punk band, but both were secondary to his substance use, which included alcohol, synthetic marijuana and opioids.

Maness tried at one point to get clean and entered treatment. He got behind on his rent while he was at Southeast Missouri Behavioral Health in Farmington, so when he got out, he moved home with his mother.

He stayed sober for about six weeks but ultimately started using again.

“I couldn’t figure out why,” Maness said. “I know now why. It was because all I was doing was taking the drugs away and not really dealing with me. I was the problem. It was my thinking. It was my perception on life and really drugs were my escape from my own distorted thoughts – just the way I was living and my perception.”

He had to sink lower before coming to that reckoning.

May 12, 2014

Maness’ mother, who’d been dealing with the effects of his drug use for years, found him passed out on the couch in the late fall of 2013 and kicked him out of the house.

“It’s snowing outside,” he remembered telling her.

“I don’t care,” she answered. “Get out of my house.”

Maness ended up living in his 1999 Jeep Wrangler in a parking lot in Fenton, Missouri, near one of his friends and fellow addicts. The two would spend their days doing heroin while the friend’s wife was away.

He kept on like that for almost six months, until one day his sister intervened when he arrived at her house looking for money.

“I really had no idea that I was going to get clean or go back to treatment on the day that that happened,” Maness said. “My sister said, ‘Why don’t you go back to treatment? What are you doing here? You look like you’re going to die.’

“I really don’t know why. It wasn’t like an epiphany or anything, but she offered to help me get in somewhere, and my mom offered to help me get in somewhere, and I took it.”

That was May 12, 2014 – a date he has tattooed on his arm. He woke up the next morning in a treatment facility and told himself he was finished.

“My motivation to change was the pain of remaining the same,” he said.

Finding a sense of purpose

Maness spent two weeks at Menzies Institute of Recovery from Addiction and then moved into a sober house where he’d live the next two years while getting involved in Narcotics Anonymous and working a 12-step program.

For a while, he delivered pizza for Imo’s – returning to a job he’d held in high school – and then was eventually encouraged to try working in behavioral health so he could share the things he’d been learning in recovery with others.

Maness landed a job as a peer support specialist with Preferred Family Healthcare. The job provided a sense of purpose, and he proved so successful in the role that his boss recommended him for a job as a recovery coach at the launch of an opioid overdose project called EPICC – Engaging Patients in Care Coordination.

Funding for the project came from the State Targeted Response grant directed by UMSL faculty member Rachel Winograd, an associate research professor at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health.

The idea for the program was to have people already in recovery in the greater St. Louis region go to hospitals and visit with individuals who had recently survived an overdose or acute intoxication and try to help them get into medication-assisted treatment.

“It started out with me and another girl from another treatment center,” Maness said. “We started out working at Barnes Hospital, Christian Northeast and SLU. It kept growing. We got some really good numbers, the data was looking really good, so it kept getting refunded.”

Today, Maness said, there are 13 recovery coaches working in 17 hospitals and with 11 fire districts across the region. They also help with outreach education and Naloxone distribution.

Maness, who received some media coverage for his work, wound up staying in the role of recovery coach until last year, when he took a job as a full-time counselor at New Season Treatment Center in St. Charles.

Returning to the classroom

Maness made the decision to go back to school after some prompting from his supervisor.

“He basically said, ‘If you’re going to go any further in this field, you’re going to need a degree,’” Maness recalled.

Looking to take a step forward in his life as he continued his recovery – and also to do something that would help him help others – he enrolled again at St. Louis Community College–Meramec.

Maness admits it was a little scary returning to the classroom after more than a decade away, but he was diligent about his studies and found success, completing his associate degree with honors.

Some friends recommended he look at UMSL to complete his bachelor’s. He was attracted to the nationally ranked criminology and criminal justice program, thinking it could teach him things applicable to his work, and UMSL offered the convenience of earning the degree fully online. That fit with his on-call work schedule.

Maness has continued to thrive at UMSL, where he’s appreciated the diverse campus community and felt engaged by his professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and elsewhere.

“The professors here, at least in this program, expect for you to apply the knowledge in ways that show that you understand it, not that you just read it,” he said. “Learning about the different theories has been amazing.”

His professors have appreciated him just as much.

“He easily makes connections across texts and offers his own original contributions to philosophical problems in his work,” said Jill Delston, an associate teaching professor of philosophy. “His love of learning really shines through in his essays, which is no surprise as he used the words ‘thought-provoking and all-consuming’ to describe his experience of philosophy.

“In an online, asynchronous class during a pandemic, it’s hard to make social connections, but one thing that really stands out about Kael is the way he goes above and beyond to bridge those barriers. He put in the effort to submit beautifully crafted replies to each of his classmates.”

Tim Maher, a professor of criminology and criminal justice, has also been inspired by his story.

“Kael’s academic performance speaks for itself, and he is one of our top students,” Maher said. “Additionally, Kael exemplifies a person who faced adversity and overcame it. He then went on to turn his personal struggle into a positive thing in his life and for others. The Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice is very proud of him.”

A new direction

Maness has been focused squarely on confronting addiction as he’s developed his capstone project. He argues for decriminalizing drug use, pardoning individuals incarcerated for nonviolent drug offense and allocating more funding for treatment-related initiatives, including increased state-funded detox and residential units in the City of St. Louis and surrounding counties, an expansion of medication-assisted treatment programs and the implementation of safety-injection sites.

But he sees a different future for himself than what he envisioned when he first enrolled at UMSL.

It’s one of the reasons he left his job at Preferred Family Healthcare and why he’s planning to pursue a master’s degree in cybersecurity at UMSL after graduating in May as he tries to step back from working exclusively with people in recovery.

“It’s one of those settings where I don’t want to do it for so long that I get jaded,” he said. “I don’t want that to be my whole life. Because I feel like it’s all consuming and all encompassing in every area of my life, and it won’t be good for my mental health.”

Maness sees career opportunity in cybersecurity, and he’s been impressed by what he’s learned about UMSL’s program. The Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency have jointly designated UMSL as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education.

He wants to remain involved with Narcotics Anonymous, serving as a sponsor and assisting others while pursuing a new career.

“I like talking in front of people,” Maness said. “I like telling my story. I like to share my experience, strength and hope with other people. I’m definitely going continue to do that in some way.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik