A Disney Ending that’s Well-Deserved

Here’s how quickly a life can unravel: On any given day in the early spring of 2001, the biggest problem in Michael Hutchins’ life was that he was an otherwise reasonably hip teenager who couldn’t get the music from “It’s a Small World” out of his head. By the end of the year, he was living out of cardboard boxes in the homes of acquaintances, while downing ecstasy, crystal meth and Special K — the street name for a tranquillizer administered on humans and pets. He went from running the rides at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom — Peter Pan’s Flight, Cinderella’s Carousel, and the gently bobbing boats and gyrating puppets of Small World — to overdosing outside the Orlando nightclub where he was working after he left Disney. It would not be the last time he would be hospitalized following an overdose.
Hutchins, 24, is now the residential manager for the Murray Street Coop run by Burlington’s Spectrum Youth and Family Services. That means he’s one of the adults responsible for the half-dozen male teenagers who live there while transitioning from foster care to independent living. Like Hutchins, those teens have been in trouble. Also, like Hutchins, many have battled depression.
“Sometimes they’ll say to me, ‘You don’t understand what this is like,’ and I tell them, ‘Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do,'” Hutchins says.
Today Hutchins is an affable, aspiring social worker with a fine tenor voice. He steers clear of caffeine as well as drugs, and starts school next month at the Community College of Vermont. The picaresque that brought him to Spectrum is at once familiar and deeply idiosyncratic.
He grew up in the Northeast Kingdom, in Lyndonville, and recalls being physically abused by his biologic mother, a young woman who had her own battles with addictions and mental illness. Eventually, he would be adopted by parents he loves deeply. When things were looking up for Hutchins as an adolescent — he was part of the national touring company of the musical outreach program, “Up with People” — he experienced a string of bad luck and made some seriously bad choices. The tour of “Up with People” was canceled while he was in Boston. He wasn’t interested yet in college, however, and so he accepted the job at Disney World. There, he says, he was caught by his manager while smoking a cigarette in the park when he wasn’t on break, and fired.
He wound up bunking for weeks at a time with different acquaintances in Orlando, while juggling jobs at a nightclub and an International House of Pancakes. One morning when he woke up in the lounge of the nightclub, a manager suggested they go to a birthday party together.
“It was 7 in the morning, and I thought it was kind of strange to be going to a party,” Hutchins recalls, “but I was sleepy and feeling a little fuzzy, and so I went.” At that party, he experimented with drugs for the first time. Within weeks, the experiment had grown into an addiction.
What saved him? After he overdosed, his adoptive family brought him back to Vermont and took him to Spectrum. There he lived first at the group’s shelter, and then, when he was ready, in his own room at Spectrum’s Maple Street residence. For two years, Spectrum counselors worked with him, helping him to steer clear of drugs, to get a job, and ultimately to find an apartment independent of the organization. He would relapse once early into the program, downing two full bottles of Robitussin in 24 hours, and winding up so high that he couldn’t feel his legs and thought he was floating. For the second — and last — time, he would be hospitalized as a result of drug abuse.
But he would get through that, too.
And when he was ready to leave Spectrum, he realized that his aspirations had changed: “Once, I thought I wanted to be the next ‘American Idol.’ Now I want to work with teens. Spectrum helps the kids on the street that most people ignore. We give a chance to those young adults who really, really need one.”
This Christmas Eve, Hutchins will be at his desk at the Murray Street Coop. When the teen boys there have gone to sleep, he will be all alone. His main responsibility then? “I’ll be their Santa and put the presents under the tree. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Most Disney characters have stories that eventually reach a happy ending. Sure, the deer’s mother will have to die first; invariably, the princess will indeed bite into the poisoned apple. But, eventually, the young fish will find his dad and the children will come of age and learn what matters in this world.
Hutchins’ tale isn’t quite over yet. But it looks this holiday season as if the guy who once ran the rides in Orlando is on the verge of a much-deserved storybook ending.
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If you want to learn more about how you can help Spectrum, either financially or as a volunteer, call 864-7423 or e-mail the organization at .
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 17, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.