Merrick Andrews, Staff Reporter
SHE WAS the toast of the town in her early 20s. With the long, lean frame of a fashion model, Ionie Whorms had strutted her way off the grimy streets of Fletcher's Land in West Kingston and onto the catwalks of the world.
At 22 she commanded fees of up to US$1,000 per show -- an impressive figure for a girl born in a neighbourhood scarred by gang wars and marked by unemployment and poverty.
Her parents separated when she was nine months old and the burden of raising her was left to her mother who juggled four jobs to support the family which also included a granddaughter.
As a child, Whorms swore she would make her mother's life easier, vowing to buy a house for the family. That determination drove her to drop out of the Kingston Senior School (now Kingston High) at 14 to become one of the founding models of Miguel. She also got married at 17.
The realities of the inner city gave her the drive to succeed, she said. And for a brief, dizzying spell it all seemed possible -- the modelling shows, the parties, the beautiful people. Whorms explained that she also became a role model who gave inspiration to the people in her community.
Then, with a puff of crack/cocaine, what was reading like a fairytale went up in smoke. At the age of 25, she made the gravest mistake of her life.
It happened several hours after a Caribbean fashion show on an island she won't disclose. It was a farewell party for models, including Whorms, who were scheduled to leave the island the following day.
The party began on a good note, she recalled one day recently, until the atmosphere changed abruptly to a freaky, wild affair with people smoking marijuana and crack/cocaine.
So began her degrading dance with crack.
"I was ignorant to crack and the dangers of crack," said Whorms. "In fact, I did not know anything about crack."
She added that a friend assured her that she could use crack and be alright. However, two days after returning to Jamaica, crack began to haunt her. "I became edgy. I was always remembering the first smoke," Whorms said, explaining how she then sought out peddlers' crack houses in Kingston.
"Under crack addiction I was like nobody, I was basically like a living dead -- everything you can define a living dead person as," Whorms told The Gleaner.
Whorms said she had no care or fear in the world and was oblivious to the harmful effects the drug was inflicting on her life.
"By then my career did not mean anything much to me anymore. Crack was my best friend, crack was my lover, crack was my career, crack was everything to me, crack was my family."
Her dreams and achievements faded: her bank account leaked to nought, and she eventually sold her car and apartment to maintain her habit buy the drug.
Soon she started to exchange sex for money.
"There was a point in my life as a model when my male friends had an interest in me sexually and I refused them," she said.
"I found them. I was trying to be as sexy as I could for them to date me. Eventually it did happen... the only thing on my mind was sex...as a crack addict you have a power with words," Whorms explained.
She even left her home, her children and parents, to live at a 'base' with several other drug addicts.
THE TURNING POINT
A meeting with a dealer who was trading her a $20 ball of coke for sex, cured Whorms' drug problem.
"I was passing one night (through a neighbouring community) to buy my key (crack) as usual. And when I was coming out with my key, this guy said to me 'hey coke head come mek mi an' you do a ting nuh, mi have a $20 ball, mi will gi you it and mi make you and mi deal wid a ting'," Whorms related the incident with tears welling up in her eyes.
"Looking back at it I didn't think I was one of those cheap addicts. I knew what I wanted. That wasn't really high for me. When a guy offer me a $20 ball in exchange for sex, I looked into myself, where I am coming from," she added, just managing to stop the tears from flowing.
On returning home she told the other drug addict friends that she was quitting crack.
"Some of them laughed while some of them really encouraged me," Whorms said.
She left the base at about 4:00 a.m., walking from Constant Spring to Fletcher's Land. During that walk she said that cursed God for what was happening to her. Eventually, she met a woman who encouraged her to enrol in a drug rehabilitation programme at the University Hospital of the West Indies.
"It was the first time, apart from my family and friends that a stranger approached me that way -- with a lot of love," she said in regards to the stranger's kindness.
Today, at 38, Whorms, a mother of four, is a changed woman. She is using her life as an example to help others through the Ionie Whorms Inner-city Counselling Centre (IWICC). It's a non-profit, non-governmental organisation which specialises in community development, counselling, prevention and referral services for substance abusers and HIV/AIDS clients and is located on the grounds of the Fletcher's Land Community Centre.
Tamara Swaby, 19, a first-year-old student at the University of the West Indies, said Whorms' life has inspired her, and has also motivated her to work for IWICC as a volunteer.
"It's her organisation, the whole idea of helping people... why I feel the need to get involved," said Swaby.
ABOUT THE IWCC
What started as a simple home/street-based programme in 1993 slowly developed into a national enterprise. With the assistance of devoted community members, Whorms staged its first Inner City Drug Awareness Road March in 1994 which captured the attention of the media.
With that support the IWICC officially opened its doors on August 30, 1995. It has been assisted by The Royal Netherlands Embassy, Opposition Leader Edward Seaga and the National Council On Drug Abuse, Addiction Alert.
In 1995 IWCC teamed up with the Jamaica Aids Support (JAS), because at the time about three per cent of substance abusers seen were HIV positive.
IWICC also offers other services such as counselling; assessment; referral and peer education.