‘Your life is worth it’: Michael DeLaVega, who served several years in jail, says it’s never too late for change

Michael DeLaVega reflects on the life he led before turning things around. He is now a 4.0 GPA college student.
Photo: Elias Funez

It’s hard to find many people with a better morning routine than Michael DeLaVega.

The 24 year old is up at 4:30 a.m. everyday, and by around 6 a.m. he’s already in the gym, having made breakfast, gotten ready for the day, and walked his dogs, Luck and Chloe. DeLaVega, now a budding bodybuilder, lifts weights for two hours before returning home and starting on homework for his psychology classes that he takes at Sierra College. A full-time student, DeLaVega studies diligently throughout the day, and he’s in bed by 8:30 p.m. without fail.

With a 4.0 GPA, DeLaVega is in good shape to transfer to the University of California, Davis by next fall, where he hopes to pursue his masters in psychology.

But DeLaVega, a lifelong Grass Valley resident, is the first to admit that for most of his life, his story was the furthest thing from inspiring.

In September 2019, DeLaVega stood in a Nevada County courtroom and listened as a judge sentenced him to five years behind bars. DeLaVega received that sentence after he confessed to a felony charge of smuggling methamphetamine into the Nevada County Jail, where he had previously been incarcerated. This most recent sentence was by far his longest jail term yet — and it awakened DeLaVega to the nightmare his life had become.

“It was a gut punch” he said of the five-year sentence, which was ultimately reduced to two years served at the Truckee jail, after DeLaVega received credit for previous time served.

“I thought to myself and i said, ‘What am I doing with my life? Where am I headed…this is not who I want to be’ … I realized that I wanted a real life. I wanted a wife, kids, to become a productive member of society. So I hunkered down and really began to confront the issues that were leading me to use drugs,” DeLaVega said.

While incarcerated, he began participating in group meetings with Project H.EA.R.T. — a local community group focused on the rehabilitation and self-growth of Nevada County inmates. Over time, these meetings helped DeLaVega gradually confront the psychological issues behind his drug addiction.

“One of those issues I confronted was a lot of past family trauma… I had a lot of anger building up towards my family, which caused a lot of resentment, which made me feel like I was unworthy, and I had low self-esteem because of that, which triggered my drug use,” DeLaVega said as he reflected on his time at the Truckee jail.

EARLY LIFE

Born in and later moving to Grass Valley as a boy, DeLaVega said that his father, who was addicted to various drugs and struggled with alcoholism, had been almost entirely absent from family life. DeLaVega was mostly raised by his mother and grandfather, but the 24 year old said that his childhood was characterized by instability, as his mother developed a marijuana addiction and left her children largely to their own devices.

“My childhood was not at all a cookie-cutter childhood…I was neglected in a lot of ways and left to figure out life on my own” DeLaVega recalled, adding that he fell into a cycle of drug-related crime almost immediately upon entering high school

“I started using marijuana and that quickly progressed into doing prescription pills…that lifestyle led to me catching charges,” he said. DeLaVega would ultimately be arrested and sent to juvenile hall 18 different times.

Acknowledging the profound sense of abandonment that his parents’ absence caused, DeLaVega said that his early experiences in crime drove him closer to the wrong influences, beginning with his time in juvenile hall.

“In juvenile hall, as crazy as it sounds…I almost felt accepted and welcome there…you have a peer group that accepts and acknowledges you,” DeLaVega said.

Twenty-four-year old Michael DeLaVega is grateful for those who have helped turn his life around, including staff at the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.
Photo: Elias Funez

As his life slowly devolved into a pattern of drug addiction, sending him in and out of jail for the next decade, DeLaVega said that he was never able to find any healthy way to process the psychological trauma he had experienced from feeling abandoned. His drug use and lifestyle only exacerbated the anger and resentment that DeLaVega felt about his life — but that all changed with Project H.EA.R.T.

MENTORS AND RECOVERY

Through the mentors and small groups he had access to at the Truckee jail, DeLaVega said he not only came to terms with his past trauma but discovered the mental and emotional tools he needed to properly manage his anger.

Over the next two years, DeLaVega said that he grew extremely close to Dave Mullan and Fred Viola, two Project H.EA.R.T. mentors who he had already met during his first jail stint at age 18. For four years, the men had encouraged DeLaVega to come to H.EA.R.T.’s group meetings, but he was initially reluctant to commit to the program, Mullan recalls.

“I met Michael at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the jail, but he wasn’t really participating then — he’d leave and come back, and leave and come back,” Mullan said.

It wasn’t until DeLaVega failed to make it through drug court and received his suspended five-year sentence, which he served at the Truckee jail, that Mullan said he saw something change in the then 22 year old.

“He finally hit that point with his five-year sentence. Actually having to sit out some real time…that changed him.”

But Mullan and DeLaVega both agree that it wasn’t just being incarcerated that led to lasting change.

The two men met weekly for almost a year, with Mullan working with DeLaVega through cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, where they went through lesson plans on significant behavioral concepts such as responsible thinking, anger management, and handling relationships. DeLaVega said these meetings not only changed how he processes his past trauma and handles his emotions, but that the sessions with Mullan began to give him new hope for a different life outside of jail.

“I came to a realization of what I wanted myself to look like, and was able to do small little stepping stones to get to a place where I felt that that I could hold onto it and run with it,” DeLaVega said.

In addition to Mullan and Viola, DeLaVega also spoke of the correctional officers in Truckee as playing pivotal roles in his lifestyle change.

“At the Truckee facility, I was surrounded by correctional officers who gave me good advice,” he said, specifically mentioning Truckee officers David Nine and Fallon Carlisle, who DeLaVega said helped lead him to Sierra College, where he was able to enroll as a student in online classes while still incarcerated.

“(Nine and Carlisle) were mentors to me…David Nine, he was like a father to me…he was hard but he did it in a loving manner, and Fallon Carlisle, she really helped me out and got me connected to Sierra College. She messaged the captain/lieutenant and said that I was worthy enough to go to college while incarcerated,” DeLaVega said, recalling how his life took a completely different direction after he started taking classes.

“That gave a whole new meaning to my life, it gave me some tangibility, some direction that I could start growing towards.”

Upon his release from jail earlier this year, DeLaVega moved back to Grass Valley, quitting drugs and distancing himself from past acquaintances involved in crime. He started going to the gym religiously, and other than working out, he now spends his time having fun with cooking, playing his guitar, and working to achieve his dream of a master’s degree in psychology at UC Davis.

Key to DeLaVega’s continued progress has been the support of Mullan — which hasn’t stopped outside of jail. The two men still meet twice a week, both to check in and just discuss life.

DeLaVega said that while his journey toward a better life is far from finished, he hopes that his story could help others in jail realize that no matter how far down the wrong path they might be, as he was, it’s still possible to find healing and live life to the fullest if the person starts with a desire for change and a willingness to listen to those who can offer guidance.

“It doesn’t matter how addicted you were, and it doesn’t matter how lost or hopeless you might be,” DeLaVega said.

“Your life is worth it, and as long as you can start making a change and get connected to positive people, it’s possible to make a life change for yourself and to change the direction that your life is headed.”

DeLaVega also wanted to thank the following Nevada County correctional officers, support staff, and mentors for making a difference in his life: Deputy Probation Officer Mellisa Blais; Capt. Sam Brown; Lt. Robert Bringolf; correctional officers Michael Tomney, Brandon Wiess, Kristen Harnage, Linda Luchessa, and Don Harner; and marriage and family counselor Julie Lang.

Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at [email protected]

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