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August 3, 2013

Judge: Young man's turnaround makes me 'very proud'

Unadilla native uses drug court to change life

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — As a 14-year-old given too much rope, Camden Palmeter didn’t have to look far for trouble.

It found him.

Raised by a single mother in Unadilla, he recalled, he said he could pretty much stay out and go to parties and bars. And even though he had little money, it wasn’t hard to find marijuana and alcohol.

“I just had connections,” Palmeter recalled.

He was a big kid with a strong frame, and while he lacked direction and discipline, he knew, even then, that he wanted to play sports.

He made the junior varsity football team at Unatego High School and soon transitioned to the varsity. But things weren’t working out all that well at home. He was having a hard time taking a liking to his mother’s boyfriend, he recalled. So he moved out of the house.

He was 14 or 15 years old.

The youth ended up taking a room in his grandmother’s home in Oneonta. He enrolled at Oneonta High School and began playing on the varsity football team at the age of 15. (A sports story from The Daily Star in 2004 noted he gained 58 yards for his team with three catches.) But he said he was again staying out as late as he wanted and became pals with people with bad habits.

“I was living the party lifestyle,” he said.

A teacher he considered his favorite told him it was doubtful he’d ever make it to college.

And so it came to pass that while he was in the 11th grade, he dropped out of school, giving him even more time to drift aimlessly on the streets, although he did find time to play sports.

When he was 18, he managed to get his General Education Diploma. But within the following year he suffered a significant setback: He was busted for marijuana possession, and was looking at the possibility of getting hit with a jail sentence. He caught a break, though, when he was put on probation. However, he said he ended up violating probation when he was cited by police for an open container violation. He spent a couple of weeks behind bars.

Palmeter said he had dreams that he wanted to fulfill — and they did not include being locked up.

By now, he said, he knew that his wrong choices were catching up to him, and he feared for the worst. But an opportunity he figured he could not pass up was presented to him when he was accepted into Otsego County’s treatment court program, overseen by County Judge Brian Burns.

He said it was Burns’ assistant, Leo Giovagnoli, who laid out the stark options: “I could go to prison or go to drug court,” Palmeter recalled.

He agreed to enter a treatment program and participate in 12-step meetings. Soon after, he said, he had a solid support network around him, and he began to understand the forces behind the swirl that drew him into substance abuse in the first place. The program, he said, also helped him to consider the decisions he knew he needed to make with his own life in order to keep him from repeating the mistakes of his past.

In 2010, he said, he enrolled at the State University at Cobleskill, where, he said, his confidence in himself grew as he accumulated college credits and began to consider what he wanted to do with his life. He was also supporting himself by working at the Walmart on the outskirts of Cobleskill.

At first, he said, he flirted with the aspiration of becoming a marriage counselor. Upon further reflection, after taking a class dealing with adult aging and development, he said he realized he was drawn more to becoming a health educator who would one day own his own gym business with a juice bar.

It’s a goal he took with him when he enrolled at the State University at Brockport, where he joined the varsity football program and remains on the team, with practices set to begin this month for the coming fall season.

While back home in Oneonta, he said he began helping friends running Tino’s Pizzeria on Main Street in Oneonta. There, he began blending fruit-dominated smoothie drinks and milkshakes. The health science major, now 24 years old, came up with the name Blendos for his product.

He had been looking forward to playing basketball over the summer months. But he said he found out that the summer park-league program in which he had participated, the Oneonta Sun League, which had evolved out of the former Del Anthony Basketball Classic community basketball program, was about to fade out of existence.

Palmeter said he was determined to not allow that to happen, because it would leave many outstanding young athletes in the Oneonta area without an outlet for their talents during the summer months.

Now the young man who was in jeopardy of being jailed just several years earlier was stepping up to take a leadership and organizing role in sparing the community basketball program from going belly-up. His efforts earned him the he right to name the league he salvaged.

“Blendos Basketball League” is what he would call it. The rejuvenated program, under Palmeter’s leadership, would attract some 85 participants, divided up among eight teams playing this summer at both Neahwa Park and Hartwick College.

The season is scheduled to culminate in the coming week.

Judge Burns, contrasting the sullen young man he first met several years ago with the one he knows today, said Palmeter’s transformation into a young adult with a purpose has been remarkable.

“I saw him regularly for about 15 months and could count on one hand the number of times I saw him smile,” the judge said. “In the last year, I don’t think I’ve seen him when he was not smiling and joking with friends. He has put aside his anger and replaced it with a joyous attitude towards life. I am very proud of this young man.”

Burns said Palmeter has done an impressive job leading the Blendos summer league, noting his son plays on one of the teams and pointing out the program’s participants include the likes of Matt Miller, the coach of Oneonta High School girls’ varsity basketball team, and Chris Garcia, The Daily Star’s 2005 Player of the Year, and now a teacher at Laurens Central and the coach of that school’s girls’ basketball program.

“Camden comes back to the treatment court now and then to talk to the people in the program,” Burns said. “He’ll tell them: ‘Hang in there. You can do it.’ He has completely turned his life around.”

Said Palmeter: “Having people tell me I could succeed is what instilled confidence in me, and was the motivating factor that has made me focus on doing what I can do to the best of my abilities. I realized I had no more chances.”