Volunteers of America centers give Utahns an opportunity for growth

(Clara Hatcher | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dolores "Dee" Buchanan (left) stands with Kathy Wagner in the donation area of the Youth Resource Center.

When Jenn Harris talks about her job as a peer support specialist for the Volunteers of America Center for Women and Children, it’s clear the position means more to her than a paycheck. For Harris, the work is a connection to her past.

“I believe in it,” Harris said about peer support work. Then, she reconsiders. “Well, that’s because I am it ... I’ve been through this.”

Harris first arrived at the Center for Women and Children in Murray in 2008 with her two young children in tow. They waited outside until a bed became available, and then Harris detoxed for two weeks from alcohol, heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

Before arriving at the center, Harris, her son, daughter and husband were all living in a camper parked in a truck stop parking lot. They did not have much food or any running water.

“I remember being here and I was hopeless — really hopeless. When you find yourself in these places, at least for me, you’re pretty much at the end of your rope,” Harris said. “It’s not working anymore — the drugs, the alcohol — whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s not working anymore.”

After her detox, Harris moved to the House of Hope to continue on her path to recovery. But, the Center for Women and Children marked a turning point in the lives of Harris and her family. It was at the center that she initially got clean from drugs and alcohol, and where her daughter took her first steps. Harris said that although the process of detoxing was painful, the fact that she was able to do so in a safe space with her son and daughter being taken care of onsite made the process easier on both her and her children.

“If we didn’t move along this path together, I think it would have set me back,” Harris said. “But, they helped with the kids, they provided support and a place where we were safe.”

Harris said in the years since she learned to care for herself at the center, largely through her work in its greenhouse, where she has volunteered for the past decade. There, she grows microgreens — which she snacks on voraciously throughout the day — and cares for the hibiscus plants, orange trees and succulents. Now, she shows the center residents how to harvest microgreens and care for the greenhouse plants.

“Having a break [in the garden] for a second did something, but it wasn’t just having a break,” Harris said. “Me planting seeds and coming back the next year to see the tulips coming back again, that was real for me. Those tulips still bloomed and what I did still mattered.”

Now, Harris has been sober from alcohol and drug use since April 20, 2017. And, that date, she said, is not something she chose, it’s “just the universe messing around.”

Providing support

The Center for Women and Children is just one Volunteers of America (VOA) location that provides a safe space for detox. Other VOA facilities provide additional support for homelessness, addiction and mental illness by providing hot meals, beds and programs that teach health and self-reliance strategies.

Harris helps run some of these programs in her work as a peer support specialist. In one activity, called “Coffee and Recovery,” Harris sits with other recovering addicts to just “drink coffee and talk about how we’re going to stay sober that day.”

Unlike a case manager, who isn’t allowed to provide a personal take on the situation, Harris is able to share her story with the individuals she helps at the center. She says she works with them to find their best path to recovery — whatever that looks like.

“It’s just all different ways to access recovery, and I believe in all paths to recovery,” Harris said. “It’s not just one way, we need to find what works for our people.”

Get involved

This holiday season, The Tribune is partnering with VOA Utah to help those in need. Here’s how you can help:

Donate • Cash, underwear, socks, sleeping bags and other cold weather gear. Full listing of needs at https://www.voaut.org/holiday-in-kind.

Volunteer • Serve meals or help sort donations. Visit https://www.voaut.org/volunteer to search for open opportunities.

Win • Drop off donations at either the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, 131 E. 700 South, or the Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City. From Friday, Nov. 29 to Friday, Dec. 13, any donor who donates cash or in-kind donations valued $25 and up will be entered into a drawing for prizes including a Pat Bagley gift basket, two tickets to The Tribune’s annual Sundance Film Festival preview, an exclusive movie screening donated by Mark Miller Subaru, a painting by a local artist, a pearl necklace, and an essential oil prize pack.

Harris’ strategy for finding recovery is in line with the VOA’s mission to bridge the gap between homelessness, addiction and mental illness to health, self-stability and self-reliance. Some VOA locations, like Maud’s Cafe, which was introduced in 2018, also provides opportunities for employment training. There, interns receive instruction on how to be a good employee before setting out to find their own way in the workforce.

[Read more: For the young baristas at this Salt Lake City cafe, it’s about more than just brews — it’s a job that can help them escape homelessness]

And, along with scheduled courses at VOA facilities across the Salt Lake area, volunteers are encouraged to use their skills to develop more versatile initiatives, according to Alexis Brown Brotherton, VOA corporate relations and volunteer engagement director.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., for instance, a University of Utah-organized “Music for the Masses” class is taught where students share their love of music with clients at the Homeless Youth Resource Center on 400 West.

But, it’s not just VOA clients who benefit.

Kathy Wagner, who is retired, has been a VOA volunteer for four years. When she first started, it was one afternoon a week. Then, two afternoons. Then, three. Now, Wagner is volunteering 20 to 25 hours of her time per week sorting donations and organizing at the Youth Resource Center. During the holidays, Wagner says she’ll work up to 45 hours weekly.

“I just want to be here,” Wagner said. “I get a great sense of purpose, and a full heart.”

And, more than that, Wagner said her volunteering has provided an opportunity to make friends. She and another volunteer, Dolores “Dee” Buchanan, spend most of their time sorting and washing donations together. They laugh while they work, talk about family and, Wagner says, Buchanan tries to discuss politics.

“It’s more than volunteering — it’s a social life,” Buchanan said. “I mean, at our age, how else do you make friends?”