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Utah teen’s program aims to help former addicts finish recovery, find work

By Christina Giardinelli, KSL | Posted - Sep 7th, 2019 @ 8:11pm

MIDVALE — Jacqueline Spencer was 22 years old when she became a substance abuser. After spending many years living without a home in downtown Salt Lake’s Rio Grande area, she received help through Valley Behavioral Health and has been clean for 137 days.

Now 35 years old, she said this is the longest amount of time she has been sober.

“I feel hopeful for the first time in my life,” she said, noting that though she has tried unsuccessfully to get clean before, this time is different.

“I have a job to do after I graduate treatment,” she said. “I’m going to get out and do this to go and empower other people.”

Elizabeth Larcenaire, a young entrepreneur, wants to help her do just that through a new scholarship program she created to help women get back on their feet.

A 17-year-old Hillcrest High School senior and volunteer at Valley Behavioral Health, Larcenaire said she started working on her brainchild, Career Closet, after noticing many women at Valley Behavioral facilities “didn’t have even ... clothes to go job interviewing.”

“I saw that that was a big hole that no one had filled yet,” she said. “My main goal with this is to just be able to help as many women as we can to the best of our abilities.”

The scholarship, which provides professional outfits, cosmetic products, a manicure, pedicure, hairstyle and professional photo shoot, aims to give women who have experienced homelessness and incarceration the confidence boost they need to enter the workforce.

Larcenaire said clothing and beauty are “the focal point” of the scholarship “because you can have a case manager help you apply for a job, but no one’s going to take you out to support and help you do makeup.”

I feel hopeful for the first time in my life.

–Jacqueline Spencer

Spencer is the first successful applicant of the scholarship launched in January. She said she hopes it will help her learn to apply makeup for her first job interviews.

“When you put yourself together, you know, and you walk into a job, you can feel that confidence,” she said.

Larcenaire said funding for the program came from donations that Valley Behavioral Health staff gave through portions of their paychecks. Though the program has enough funding to provide one scholarship per quarter, she said she hopes to eventually expand.

Spencer said receiving the scholarship “ignited” her and appreciates Larcenaire’s efforts.

“When you’re in high school you want to do you, you don’t want to worry about other people,” she said, but Larcenaire is different. To her, she said, “we’re not just, you know, people, we are human beings, we are women.”

Larcenaire said Spencer was one of many applicants, but was selected because she was “very open and honest about her story” and “very clear that she wants to stay clean.”

Getting clean

Though Spencer attempted many times to get clean, she said “this is the first legit time in the years of my addiction that I genuinely surrendered.”

Spencer was arrested during Operation Rio Grande, the massive police effort aimed at ridding the downtown neighborhood of crime. The operation saw some 484 people taken into custody during the summer of 2017, in the area of Salt Lake City’s homeless shelter.

“I was on the run from probation for nine months,” she said, noting that because she was in treatment she was able to have her warrant recalled and avoid serving time.

She said the key to getting clean is to surrender and “being willing to admit your wrongs.”

“I stole. I cheated. I’ve lied to feed my addiction. I’ve sold my body. I’ve sold drugs. I didn’t raise my kids. I wasn’t a mother. I wasn’t capable of being in society without mind-altering substances,” she said.

Spencer is now pregnant with her third child, a boy due at the beginning of January. She said this time she will not have to sign custody over to her mother. Since getting clean she said she has been making reparations with her mother, her 18-year-old son, and her 2-year-old daughter.

“It’s not an easy journey,” she said. “Homelessness is the worst being a woman. I think homelessness took me down real quick.”

Though she said she’s “been through it all,” from rape to being shot and loosing her kids, one the biggest demons she’s had to face in recovery was the fact that she was molested when she was 7 years old.

“I had to really work though the fact that they stole my innocence, I didn’t steal their innocence,” she said. “I had a core belief that I did something to provoke them.”

She said working with a therapist while in the program has helped her realize that “they were already sick and I was just caught in the crossfire.”

Spencer said going through what she has and getting clean has made her realize that she has a purpose.

“I want to be an activist,” so she can tell others that “we don’t have to let our addiction take us down.”

Christina Giardinelli

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