SLC facility helping youths fight addiction
Drugs had been part of his life since he was 11-years-old, so when a friend pulled out some spice earlier this year he thought about just sitting back and lighting up.
"It was a struggle for me," the 16-year-old, who is not being named as The Tribune does not identify juveniles who have committed crimes, recalled. "My thing is getting high."
But on this particular night he did something that might have been unthinkable months earlier: he grabbed his jacket, walked outside and called Alycia Jurgela, an adult he met in a court case. Over the next few minutes, the two talked and soon the moment passed. He stayed clean that night.
"She talked me through it," he said. "She just reminded me of how well I was doing."
Jurgela is the CEO and founder of The Utah House, a program that helps kids like the 16-year-old boy deal with issues ranging from substance abuse to mental health. It's a new program, and, according to Jurgela, one that grew out of her time as a social worker with the Division of Child and Family Services. During a conversation earlier this month, Jurgela said that over time she came to believe Utah needed more services focused on keeping kids in their own homes. No one was really filling that niche, so Jurgela did it herself.
"A kid should be at home with their parents as long as they're safe," she said.
Today, The Utah House serves about 27 kids between ages 7 and 17, though it's licensed to work with children as young as 3. Lori Weaver, director of operations, said the kids come from a variety of backgrounds and end up in the program because they're having trouble in school, exhibit behavioral problems or struggle with substance abuse. Many are referred to the program by judges in the juvenile justice system.
That's how the 16-year-old ended up in the program. Earlier this year, his drug use had finally caught up with him again and he found himself standing before a judge. The moment represented a kind of crossroads; the judge wanted to send him away to a short-term residential program but the teen pleaded to go home.
Jurgela also attended the court appearance. She said she pointed out to the judge that the boy was a survivor of abuse and that those were the real roots of his troubles.
"Let's deal with the trauma before we deal with the drug abuse," she argued to the judge.
Finally, the judge acquiesced, agreeing to send the teen to The Utah House.
He was among the first clients to enter the program after it officially opened its doors in August. The program is housed at 1370 S. West Temple in a small, modernist brick building just across the street from the Salt Lake Bee's stadium a location chosen because it's on a TRAX line, making it easier for clients to get there.
The kids spend their days working in three different group sessionsthat touch on topics such as anger management, coping skills and education. Activities include anything from hands-on craft projects to discussion sessions to therapy. Staff members also make goals with the kids, but the program is specifically designed to not be punitive if participants slip up.
According to Weaver, the kids progress through a series of five levels until they "graduate."
"The goal is to have kids in treatment 60, 90, 100 days and then transition them back into the mainstream," Weaver explained.
In the days after Christmas, the teen was nearing graduation, though by his own admission his progress had been bumpy at times. In the beginning, he relapsed. He also had other "issues" and his initial enthusiasm was not immense.
But over time, the staff won the boy over. He saw how much they cared and how hard they worked, pointing out that Jurgela gave him rides to and from the facility and staff members attended Narcotics Anonymous with him. And whenever he felt he was struggling no matter what time of day it was he knew support was just a phone call away.
"In every program I've been in there's been staff I've liked," the 16-year-old said, "but never to the extent as here. They don't stop caring or give up on you."
Achieving that level of involvement hasn't been easy. Jurgela said staff members will text program participants at night to show support, and the work generally never ends. Staff members also come from a variety of backgrounds, with years of experience in social work, therapy, psychology and other fields.
Jurgela described the entire project as a "bootstrap operation." The Utah House is still awaiting approval of its non-profit status and on the last week of the year, she and Weaver seemed ecstatic that, finally, the money had come through to pay the staff. Jurgela also explained that initial funding for the project came from a family loan, and that she furnished much of the office with tables and chairs from her own house. In the parking lot outside, a large white van ideal for transporting clients is the end result of Jurgela selling her own Acura.
But bootstrap operation or not, the program appears to be working, at least for the 16-year-old. During a conversation on a recent Friday night, the teenager spoke with pride of staying sober for months. As he spoke, he fiddled with his headphones and a green and yellow beanie. He explained that he loves music mostly reggae and rap, but also classical and plans to enroll in Salt Lake Community College in early 2014. He doesn't know what his major will be, but he plans to work in music somehow.
To make that happen, he spends some of his time at The Utah House doing schoolwork. He estimates he'll have his GED some time in January a goal Jurgela also expects him to reach and soon he'll be out of the program altogether.
Weaver said another early enrollee in the program also is near graduation and also plans to attend SLCC in 2014. And while that won't be the end of the struggle for the 16-year-old or the other teenage graduate of the program, it will open the door to a brighter future.
"If we can help them now," Weaver said, "they're not going to end up in the adult system."
The Utah House is always looking for additional help. Director Lori Weaver said the program needs donations of craft supplies and Legos. Volunteers who can help tutor teenagers or serve as mentors also are needed.