Utah nonprofits team up to enhance stable housing program for parents struggling with addiction

Heidi Lund, executive director at LifeStart Village, helps others cut the ribbon on newly remodeled and repainted units at the nonprofit's Family Support Center on June 15.

Heidi Lund, executive director at LifeStart Village, helps others cut the ribbon on newly remodeled and repainted units at the nonprofit's Family Support Center on June 15. (Robin Pendergrast)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Makayla Smittenaar can pinpoint the moment her life began to unravel.

"My dad committed suicide when I was 16 years old. My mom, she basically abandoned us when that happened; we always say she died with him. And that was really hard for her," said Smittenaar, now a mother of two herself.

The loss of her father, and the subsequent absence of her mother, hit Smittenaar and her four siblings hard.

"We were left to fend for ourselves — and by doing that, we partied. That's what we wanted to do, and we wanted to get away. That was our escape," said Smittenaar. "That turned into drugs; you find drugs at parties. You never think you're going to be that person, but that was me. I got addicted to pills."

Smittenaar's introduction to drugs and later addiction — at 16 years old — became a gateway to heroin use nearly eight years later. "When I found heroin, it was game over. I lost everything," she recalled.

Heidi Lund faced a similarly traumatic childhood.

"My whole life, my whole childhood was trauma-based. My mom selling drugs, all of that was very normal to me. Growing up like that, you really don't see another way out," Lund recalled.

Both Smittenaar and Lund would later find themselves receiving help from The Family Support Center's LifeStart Village, a transitional housing program for single parents with children in Salt Lake County. The village offers programs such as parent education and financial direction to help those recovering from addiction achieve self-sufficiency.

Smittenaar and Lund told the stories of their personal struggles while celebrating a recent partnership between LifeStart Village and another nonprofit, Homeaid Utah, meant to enhance the program. Homeaid Utah, a provider of housing and resources for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, recently helped with the renovation and remodel of several units in the village.

'I never knew that you could have a different life'

After years of dealing with addiction, Smittenaar lost custody of her two children and also struggled with suicidal ideation. When her suicidal ideation escalated, she asked her mother for help, and her mother took her to the hospital. Following her release, Smittenaar experienced a relapse in her addiction and eventually replaced drug use with alcohol.

"And then there was just one day where I woke up and, I don't even know, it was like I just knew that I couldn't live this life. I was not meant for this life, to be waking up God-awfully sick, and so I asked my mom again for help," Smittenaar recalled.

She was taken to the hospital for treatment a second time. Following her release this time, she began residential treatment for three months followed by day treatment for four months, and then outpatient treatment for an additional three months. But Smittenaar knew she wasn't done and wouldn't remain sober without additional help.

Her caseworker began speaking to Lund, who is now executive director of The Family Support Center's LifeStart Village. But LifeStart Village requires six months of sobriety before a person can move in — and Smittenaar only had 90 days.

Still, Lund recognized Smittenaar's desperation; it was reminiscent of her own when she found herself at LifeStart Village with her two children over a decade ago.

"Now that I am now on the other side — I've been clean and sober for 11 years now, but before that I never knew that you could live a different life," Lund said.

Yet after a series of new starts, Lund not only found herself on the other side but as a light keeper to the 37 families residing in LifeStart Village. The program consists of two phases that span over five years. Once Phase 1 of the program is completed, parents graduate to a rental town house or cottage in the neighborhood for Phase 2.

The neighborhood and its upkeep are important to Lund.

"This is the neighborhood that your kids are going to talk about when they're older, saying I grew up (there) and I want that to be a memorable experience; that's what my kids talk about," said Lund.

The new partnership between LifeStart Village and Homeaid Utah will help make that continue to happen, supporting families like Lund's and Smittenaar's, after the nonprofit helped renovate and remodel several of the Phase 2 units.

Don Adamson, executive director of Homeaid Utah, described the partnership as a way for his organization to reach out to those who need help the most.

"Nonprofits tend to be very siloed, ready to be protected in their donor base, and they work together. There's that possibility that maybe they'll have a donor, abandon them and move to a different nonprofit. ... We're not a frontline service provider. We're here to support those who do direct client services," Adamson explained.

The recent renovation has allowed more units to operate, creating space for more families.

"Partnering with these guys, I mean, there's so many different partners we have in the community ... that's how we stay open," said Lund.

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.


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