His diving mask snugly fixed over his face and his oxygen tank strapped to his back, Daniele Silvestri is a happy young man when he plunges into the depths around Ponza or Elba. Theres a whole beautiful world down there to discover, he beams. Passionate about anything to do with water, back in Rome he takes his eight young charges off to the Bravetta public pool for their first brush with swimming, helping them to overcome their fears.
Silvestri, 34, knows a lot about discovering new worlds. Good looking, with close-cropped brown hair and a neatly barbered beard, today he is a vital part of a youthful team that greets whoever stumbles off the campers arriving in from the rough edges of Rome each night. He speaks their garbled language, knows their jargon, understands their troubled state. These are hardened drug addicts. Silvestri used to be one of them himself. He took his first puff of marijuana with classmates in 1980 aged 13 and it rapidly spiralled out of control. Thirty-six months later, he dropped out of school and took to the streets. There he robbed, stole and began pushing to support his heroin habit. His sheltered housewife mother simply did not grasp what was happening; his father put in such long hours at work that they rarely saw one another.
A brief stint in the military did nothing to slow down the momentum of his addiction. By the time he was released, he was back on the streets pushing. It got so that nothing else mattered. Getting my daily fix of heroin was my one and only objective. I had no friends, no interests, no family life. Just heroin.
There was a first arrest for drug peddling. Twelve months later, the police caught up with him again. This time, there was a stiffer price tag: a six-year sentence in Rebibbia prison.
Behind bars, the 24-year-old boy thought about the future. Fate then stepped in: Fondazione Villa Maraini, a therapeutic community for drug addicts deep in a sprawling pine grove in Monteverde Nuovo, had a new experimental project that reached into the local prison system, the so-called Progetto Carcere, to try to offer kids a fresh start. It was a giant step for me to make the decision to beat drugs. There were 14 months of group therapy at Rebibbia and I really teetered, unsure whether Id make it. The tough ground rules set down by foundation director Massimo Barra were unyielding: Ill get you out of there before your sentence is up, he promised, on the condition you dont go anywhere near drugs. Silvestri could sleep at home every night, with a police check to verify this. And every day for two years he had to show up faithfully at Villa Maraini for psychotherapy, drug therapy, group meetings.
He stuck to the bargain, building up distance from his former life and turning to new interests. Restless and frustrated that his prison record now stymied his chances at outside work, he turned to Barra. Couldnt the miniscule printing press they had at the villa be built up into something better? And what about offering the outside world a team of gardeners to spruce up untidy property? Barra could see no objections. We started running off flyers offering our services and I delivered them around town, he recalled. Before long, the comunit was carrying out commissions and the team was building self-esteem.
For the last six years, Silvestri has been helping out Villa Maraini directly. First, he worked the night shift on those camper vans, the unit di strada, bringing in drug addicts seeking help. Later, he joined the so-called welcome desk to attend to the immediate needs of whoever came through the door. There have been new drug-related projects to launch alongside Barra. He then went back to school, got his diploma and is now studying sociology at university. Schedules permitting, he gives a hand to the Red Cross, working with one of their ambulance teams. He has moved into his own apartment with friends and together they sell taped reggae music imported from Jamaica to a growing number of fans here in Italy. He has helped not only himself, but also scores of others just like himself as he was once upon a time.