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LifeStart Village gives homeless mothers, children a do-over

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MIDVALE — The next destination in Heidi Lund’s journey is the cottage she can see from her living room window.

Moving into the cottage at LifeStart Village means Lund will have lived drug-free for another two years. The move would confirm that all of the hard work she has done to get off drugs, keep a steady job and effectively parent her two children has paid off.

LifeStart Village, tucked into a neighborhood in an industrial area of Midvale, is a program of the Family Support Center. The therapeutic community’s mission is to help single women with children move from lives of dependency to self-sufficiency.

“This place has definitely kept me grounded. My kids love it here, too,” Lund said.

Recently, the Family Support Center was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Denver-based Daniels Fund to support LifeStart Village’s work.

“The grant will enable our program to continue to provide self-sufficiency training and housing homeless mothers and their children despite devastating (Department of Housing and Urban Development) cuts,” said Bonnie Peters, executive director of the Family Support Center.

Lund has been sober for two years. Despite a criminal record that includes felony offenses, she convinced a woman who owns a dog grooming business to give her a chance.

That was a year ago. Not only did the woman hire her, she’s trained her to groom dogs and cats.

“That’s the longest I’ve kept a job,” Lund said.

The stability of LifeStart’s residential program — which offers an array of classes, life skills training and random drug testing — is a world away from Lund’s upbringing.

Her mother was a drug addict who earned a living selling drugs, Lund said.

“My whole family was addicted to drugs. Nothing was ever stable,” she said.

Absent a predictable home life or a positive parent role model, Lund left home at 16 to live with her boyfriend. They were together for 10 years and had two children.

“He’s all I’ve ever known. I didn’t think that I could live without him. It was that sick of a relationship,” she said.

Like her mother, Lund used and sold drugs. She racked up a criminal record. She was at risk of losing her children.

But she wasn’t able to get clean — and stay that way — until she learned to value herself.

“Now that I’ve been single, I’ve learned to be OK with me,” she said.

Lund is in the first of the program's three phases. Clients and their children are allowed to live in LifeStart's dorm-like setting for up to two years. Lund and her children have been there 13 months, the longest among the program's current residents.

They are not allowed to have visitors in the dorms, which is helpful to recovering addicts because most of the people likely to visit are people from her troubled past, Lund said.

Residents are expected to follow rules, such as attending classes, shunning alcohol and illegal substances, keeping their dorm rooms and common areas tidy, as well as taking turns cooking meals for residents.

“LifeStart Village is about empowering women who have hit rock bottom with the skills, tools and opportunities they need to stand on their own two feet, not only for themselves, but for their children as well,” Peters said.

Lund said many of the residents have competed substance abuse treatment programs, which helps keep them accountable for their actions.

"Living with a bunch of drug addicts, we all know when you're slipping," Lund said.

Program director Karen Haney said about half of the women who are placed at the village have not graduated from high school. Some have had their children placed with the Division of Child and Family Services. Many have struggled with mental illness and/or substance abuse.

One mother, Karri, who asked not to be identified by her full name, said she relinquished rights to her child because the child was doing well in foster care. She has retained custody of her 2-year-old son and continues to maintain her sobriety and manage a mental illness.

"He's the sunshine in my world," Karri said.

LifeStart, meanwhile, has been the anchor that has taught her to be a good parent and to work on building self-esteem.

"I came from a dysfunctional family without much positive reinforcement," Karri said. "Here, I've learned to form more stable relationships. (LifeStart) gave me a chance to be a mom. It's something I haven't had."

Karri has made sufficient progress to enter the program's second phase, where she will move into a cottage that has more privacy and enhanced personal responsibilities.

In the third phase, clients are eligible to purchase a limited number of rent-to-own homes that are also part of the village, but presently all are occupied.

The ultimate goal of the program, Peters said, is for clients to resume living in the community with their children and to use the life skills they develop to find and maintain employment, obtain housing, maintain their sobriety and otherwise contribute to the well-being of their families and communities.

“LifeStart Village teaches women not to wait for someone to come solve their problems, but teaches them to be strong, independent and self-sufficient. And we couldn’t do it without the support of the Daniels Fund,” Peters said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com