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Solving a Salt Lake poverty problem: Addiction recovery center creates employment program

SALT LAKE CITY — When an employer sees a resume with years between jobs and a history of involvement with the criminal justice system, they'll likely pass on it quickly, Charles Talcott says.

He knows from personal experience.

"People with a history of addiction often have a job history that does not benefit them in gaining employment — there's holes, and holes are hard to explain in a resume," said Talcott, a graduate from First Step House addiction recovery center. "So people who are very qualified, eager, don't get the opportunity."

Because this difficult circumstance for people with addiction histories can contribute to Salt Lake's poverty problem, First Step House launched a new employment program Friday.

Shawn McMillen, executive director of First Step House, said the program will assess and identify individuals who need employment help, offer assistance with professional basics like wardrobes and communication skills, and continue to engage with them after they get a job to encourage good work ethic, answer any questions and help them get promotions.

"It's not one of those things where we just get you a job," he said. "It's one of those things where we help get you a job, help you keep that job and grow within that organization."

McMillen continued: "So this new program pieces all of that together and ideally positions the individual where they cannot only retain that job, but stick with that job and get the next job within that organization and grow with the organization — that's the vision of the program."

Talcott, who graduated from First Step House in 1989 and is now a member of its board of directors, said he thinks this employment program is long overdue.

"It creates safety," Talcott said. "For a lot of people who have experienced the phenomenon of addiction, they lose accountability. (One Step House) basically force us to have accountability and force a schedule on us, and we have to comply, comply in order to stay. And there's a great advantage to that. We're relearning how to become a member of society."

Since graduating from First Step House, Talcott has gone back to school, became an addiction counselor and worked at the Veterans Affairs hospital.

KeyBank partnered with First Step House by providing $200,000 Friday to get the employment program started. Terry Grant, president of Utah market for KeyBank, said it was the largest single donation the bank has made in Utah.

"It goes back to the individual," Grant said. "They have some incredible individuals who have gone through this program, are currently going through this program and who will go through this program that are just down on their luck."

While helping the individual, the program will also greatly help families, Grant said, adding that the kids of people in recovery often get caught in an intergenerational poverty cycle.

"This program can help break that cycle and allow those children to help grow up in a stable environment so that they can now go on," he said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said Friday at the program kickoff that only 17 percent of First Step House patients are employed when they enter treatment.

"Overcoming addiction can be a lifelong struggle, and those who take that first leap into recovery often hit roadblocks that are completely out of their control and are no choice of their own," McAdams said. "One of those roadblocks is finding employment, especially today, that pays enough to support yourself."

Everyone needs a way to earn income, he said, and addiction recovery can be complicated or even halted if the individual cannot provide for themselves.

"It's exciting to see an organization like First Step House coming up with practical solutions that are evidence-based, data-driven … to really solve the most difficult problems that we face as a society," McAdams said.

Debbie Trujillo, regional corporate responsiblity officer for KeyBank, said the employment program will also give hope to recovering individuals and their families.

"I truly believe that they don't want a handout; they want a hand up," Trujillo said. "And this is what this program does."