After years of drinking and using drugs, Jenn Harris was ready to get sober in 2008.
When the Volunteers of America Center for Women and Children called to say a space had become available, she dashed to the Murray center with her husband and two children.
As the family waited outside the building for her room to be ready, her daughter started walking for the first time. “She took her first three steps to her father,” Harris said. “That day, I took my first steps to recovery.”
Harris had wanted to begin treatment for her addiction at the detox facility because children were allowed to stay there with their mothers. For 15 years, the center helped women begin their recovery from their addictions — until government grants ran out and it closed in 2014.
But on Oct. 24, after state funding to remodel and operate the facility was secured, the doors opened again. Last week, there were 22 women and one child at the center, and another woman was waiting to be admitted.
Today, Harris credits Volunteers of America, Utah with turning her life around, and said having her daughter and son, now 12 and 14, with her was a vital factor in her success.
“It’s so important to have kids there,” said Harris, 44, of Salt Lake City, adding that she believes it’s also better for women to get sober with other women.
The 32-bed center is expected to serve 450 women and 50 children a year. The residential facility, at 697 W. 4170 South, provides a safe place to stay for women who are withdrawing from the use of alcohol or drugs.
Children 10 and younger can stay with their moms. Staff members assist with their supervision, and the kids who are enrolled in school are transported to and from classes.
After the 14-day withdrawal period, women are referred to other facilities for further treatment. Clients are charged on a sliding scale, and no one is turned away because of an inability to pay.
Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, Utah, said allowing children to stay is important for them as well as their mothers.
“What we were finding was that the separation of the children and the mother was causing more trauma to the children than letting them stay together and heal,” Bray said. “We want to continue to keep families together.”
After the center closed in 2014, VOA consolidated its detox services in its main facility in Salt Lake City and built a wall in the building to create a dormitory with separate bathrooms for women, Bray said. The nonprofit also made arrangements to place children with another community organization, but women were reluctant to be separated from their kids.
“Women might not come in to get help if they can’t bring their children with them,” Bray said. “Then their addiction continues and gets worse. We are so grateful to have this facility so women can bring their children and not worry about them.”
The state of Utah, through the Department of Workforce Services and in partnership with the state homelessness committee, authorized up to $1 million for remodeling and up to $1 million for operations for the center’s first year.
Regence BlueCross Blue Shield, Salt Lake County and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also provided assistance for the first year. After that, VOA will reapply for $1 million from the state and look for additional partners to raise an additional $200,000 to $400,000 to cover ongoing annual operating costs.
Former client Rachel Santizo said she became addicted to heroin after being prescribed pain pills and was in an abusive relationship when she came to the center for help. She did not have custody of her two children but was allowed supervised visits with them during her stay.
“It kept me safe, gave me structure and saved my life,” Santizo, 39, said of her time at the center. “I walked in on March 14, 2012, and I’ve been sober ever since.”
Santizo, who visited her old room when the center reopened, has the date of her arrival tattooed on her arm as a reminder of “the day I came back to life.”
Her sobriety allowed her to regain custody of her son, now 19, and daughter, now 16.
“When they told me they were proud of me, my life changed,” Santizo said.
Harris and Santizo got long-term residential treatment for their addictions after leaving the Center for Women and Children. They both work for addiction treatment organizations and volunteer with groups that help people overcome their substance abuse.
Harris, who is studying at the University of Utah for a bachelor’s degree in social work, was sober for 7½ years after her stay at the center, but relapsed when she was prescribed pain medication after a surgery. She got treatment again and has been sober now for 19 months.
On Tuesdays, Harris volunteers at the Freedom Garden, where center clients grow flowers and plants and find a peaceful place to sit and reflect.
“It’s like nurturing your recovery, giving it water and giving it sun,” Harris said of working in the garden. “VOA believes in recovery and provides a space to get better. I have an amazing life today.”
Holiday donation drive
Volunteers of America, Utah is holding a holiday donation drive to help provide services for community members suffering from homelessness, mental illness and addiction. The nonprofit serves more than 10,000 people in the state each year.
Among other donations, VOA is seeking cash, gift cards, bus tokens, warm clothing for children and adults, hygiene items, diapers, household items, school supplies and coloring books. Also on the list is a playground for the Center for Women and Children.
To donate, visit https://www.voaut.org/holidaydonations. You also can make a purchase from the center’s Amazon Holiday Wish List and the items will be shipped directly to VOA. To help with the Fill the Pack program, which provides homeless youth with backpacks full of hand warmers, socks, underwear and other items, visit www.voaut.org/fillthepack.
All donations can be delivered to the sorting facility at the Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City.
For volunteer opportunities, go to https://www.voaut.org/volunteer.