How former Elkhart teacher survived Methamphetamine addiction
December 26, 2016
SOUTH BEND — If you run into her, you might recognize Maria Stancati’s name, or even her face.
Maybe you grew up with her and her twin sister, Michelle Stancati. After all, Maria is a west-side girl.
Yet if your memory is jogged just a little, you might recall the source of Maria Stancati’s greatest embarrassment: She and her twin — both teachers at the time — were arrested several years ago after a bathtub of cooking methamphetamine caught fire in their East Woodside Street home.
But for Maria, overcoming her past might also turn out to be one of her greatest achievements.
In 2008, the 35-year-old sisters were meth addicts. They were also both teachers, Maria at Elkhart Memorial High School and Michelle at North Side Middle School in Elkhart.
The fact they were teachers meant their cases held a great deal of public interest. Maria well remembers how many times her name was published in The Tribune, including on the front page. A prosecutor was quoted calling the women “a danger to society.”
The fact their house was within 600 feet of an elementary school meant they were charged severely, both eventually pleading guilty to Class A felonies. Michelle’s 11-year-old son was also at the house at the time.
Michelle was sentenced to 40 years in prison, with 20 years suspended. She was released earlier this year but was arrested on another drug charge four months later in Elkhart County. Michelle is serving the rest of her sentence at Indiana Women’s Prison.
But Maria’s story has taken a different path.
‘Don’t let yourself down’
The Stancati sisters had a falling out before that November day in 2008. Maria had moved out in protest of the meth operation an investigator would later testify was the largest she had seen in the county.
Maria recalls her sister had emailed her earlier that day.
“Maria, come home,” Michelle told her. “We’re not going to be doing that anymore.”
But upon returning home, Maria discovered differently.
Judge Jerome Frese, who has since retired, believed in Maria’s lesser culpability and gave her a chance in sentencing her to what had come to be known in legal circles as “The Frese Special.”
Maria was sentenced in June 2009 to 32 years, all of which was suspended, but 20 of those years in prison “as a condition of probation.” In other words, Frese was sending her to prison but reserving the right to order her release after a year, if she proved worthy.
When Maria returned to court in August 2010, a Tribune report noted how much healthier and livelier she looked than she had more than a year earlier, when she appeared “gaunt.”
Prison was a violent, scary place. While she was there, Maria shared a cell with two murderers, including Paula Cooper, the woman who at 16 had stabbed to death an elderly Sunday school teacher in Gary in 1985.
Her father had been having health problems at the time, Maria remembers, but she could call home only twice a week to check on him. On Christmas, when prisoners were lucky to have a sack lunch and to grab a bologna sandwich for eating later, it was tough realizing how your family would be celebrating without you.
Maria had done everything she could do while in prison to shorten her time, she says. She scrubbed toilets, did laundry, even opened her own classroom of sorts to tutor other prisoners.
Frese ordered her to community corrections during that 2010 hearing, but not without a warning.
“You’ve got some rebuilding to do here,” the judge told her sternly. “Only you can make (your family) now proud. Don’t let them down and don’t let yourself down.”
‘I’m a survivor’
Maria was accepted into Dismas House while reporting during the day to DuComb Center.
For the first few months, Executive Director Maria Kaczmarek says, Maria Stancati suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from her prison experience, as most residents do.
“It was overwhelming,” Maria Stancati acknowledges. In fact, wherever she went, she’d pull a baseball hat down onto her face and wear sunglasses.
People tended to recognize her, anyway.
She was able to find a job as a waitress. Eventually, Kaczmarek “drug her” to a Rotary meeting, where Stancati met a Goodwill executive who hired her part time as a case manager for the agency’s Second Chance program. Not long after, that job became full time.
After her 14-month stay at Dismas House ended, Maria returned every week as a volunteer. She was asked to join the board and eventually was hired as Dismas’ program director a little more than two years ago. She has since been promoted to assistant executive director.
Even with the full-time Dismas job, she still waitresses on weekends. She’s a single mother to 3-year-old A.J. now, and a nonprofit salary doesn’t pay all the bills.
When she speaks to groups, she often asks her audience how many of them have known a person who’s been incarcerated. Usually, only a few hands go up.
“I was incarcerated,” Maria tells them, enjoying their surprise. Her stories are often funny, but poignant at the same time. “I did a year at a women’s penitentiary.”
It’s fun, but she’s also making her point.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” she says. “I’m not proud of it, but I’m proud of my journey.”
Listening in, Maria Kaczmarek tells her, “It doesn’t define you anymore.”
“I don’t want my story to define me,” Maria Stancati agrees. Then she adds, “But I’m a survivor, damn it.”