Creating a Village

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

April Chouinard. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Planting the Seed, by Jenn Lamb, Director of Supportive Services

Nearly 10 years ago, a treatment facility doctor and a Fifth Judicial District judge in southwest Minnesota recognized that drug court participants were struggling. The women especially would enter recovery programs, graduate, then have nowhere to go — lacking support, transportation, child care — and would sometimes return to unhealthy relationships out of economic necessity. Participants with criminal backgrounds have challenges qualifying for rental housing. Recovery program graduates face ongoing court demands including outpatient treatment and probation conditions. In addition, most graduates juggle employer expectations and some women resume parenting responsibilities.

Independent stable housing was needed for women with children, with services and a landlord that understood their situations. The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit community and affordable housing developer that serves people transitioning out of unsheltered status, emerged as a partner in this effort.

A number of community partnerships were brought together to meet the needs of recovery participants. A planning committee included people from Nicollet County Health & Human Services, the school district, probation officers, the county prosecutor and public defender, city council members, county commissioners, the city administrator, public health representatives, a drug court graduate, and property management staff.

Today, Solace apartments in Saint Peter operate as a “Housing First” model, which prioritizes housing as a key factor in stability and does not require participants to be sober. Solace has 30 units of one, two, or three bedrooms. The units are filled by referral from many partners, counties, and providers across the state. The program has lengthy waitlists.

Growing, by Ashley McCarthy, Resident Services Navigator

When we thrive, we are able to support our community. If we are struggling, we need to access support and lean on others. While not perfect, Solace is very much needed.

The biggest barriers to success for those facing chemical dependency, family reconnection, mental illness, and being unsheltered include: 1) being able to find and maintain safe housing, and 2) accessing services. The goal is also to address the needs of children so that cycles of generational drug use and being unhoused can end.

Working alongside residents makes me privy to their joys and their challenges. I love when they come to my office to brag about themselves. I hear uplifting stories about new jobs and promotions, their kids, another day sober, how they asserted themselves and used boundaries, making a breakthrough in therapy, or trying a new recipe.

Solace residents also share their challenges. With the pandemic, isolation has been a big one. Therapy, probation, and support groups were moved online. There are always other challenges too — relapse, parenting, feeling judged by others. Good or bad, big or small, they choose to share these moments with me. It is the best part of my job.

The hardest part of my job is when I cannot keep someone housed. I believe that every person benefits when safe housing is the first priority. Sometimes people make different decisions for their lives. April Chouinard and her girls are a great example of thriving at Solace.

Blossoming, by April Chouinard, Solace resident since December 2018

A person might assume that I was most vulnerable while being unsheltered and addicted to meth. Honestly, I felt most vulnerable when my chaotically packed psychological boxes were being dumped out during therapy. After the five months in a structured environment I had experienced at The Restoring Place and House of Hope — both high-intensity inpatient treatment centers — the outpatient recovery period felt like an unpleasant free-fall. There were new coping mechanisms for anxiety and confusion, mixed with the intense novelty of feeling true emotions without the buffer of substance abuse. I was raw. And it was hard.

When I moved into my space at Solace, I had no driver’s license, my vehicle was impounded, and I did not have custody of my children full time. Emotionally and psychologically, I was hardly capable of opening my mail without panic or going to the gas station independently, let alone supporting myself or my three little girls.

I was trying to figure out who I was. I was struggling with mental health issues. I was desperate to make sense of how I ended up in the place I was in life. I was grieving so many losses, including the deportation of my husband. I was in early recovery from many addictions, including intravenous meth use and severe alcoholism. I was incredibly vulnerable. I felt both helpless and hopeful at the same time.

My girls were 5, 9, and 11, with three vastly different personalities. My wise probation officer recommended sticking to an established schedule of every other weekend, but I was eager to push to 85 percent custody and make up for the precious time I had lost. During the previous two years, I had been separated from my children due to severe addiction, jail, and then treatment.

My probation officer was right — I was not ready for the extensive parenting role on top of recovery. My parenting was being directed by guilt and shame. In addition, I was working through my own traumas. It was a confusing and tangled time. I relapsed so many times that I ended up in Treatment Court, which is normally reserved for people who are facing prison sentences. I was facing a year in jail because of probation violations.

It has been a tough journey, but I was able to work through the hiccups because this program allowed me the time to heal and to transform.

Ashley McCarthy has been an amazing resource for all of us at Solace. She held my hand through small to really big steps: reminding me of opportunities for me and my kids, helping me file taxes and complete important paperwork, encouraging me to use my voice to express gratitude and my story to reach others. She provides kids with points charts for doing well at home and school. She offers information on mental health services, jobs, and volunteer opportunities. She gives us rides.

The art program at Solace has been incredible for my healing as well as building confidence and self-esteem. While learning about painting and creating art with my children, I was taught by Solace’s resident artist not to just toss pieces that I felt I had screwed up. He would say, “No giving up. Keep going with that and see what happens!”

Taking breaths, pushing through mistakes — the process of creating beauty out of mistakes and never throwing anything away was so important. I am quite emotional writing this. I am realizing how therapeutic that process was for me.

As an alcoholic and an addict, my response was always to escape difficulty or mistakes by running away or numbing. I knew nothing of facing difficult emotions, pushing through, or being consistent. The artist coaching me through perseverance on canvas — consequently building confidence by realizing that mistakes are only as big as you allow them to be — spilled into my personal life in a truly beautiful way.

I have lived at Solace two years now and am a member of the housing partnership’s board of directors. I spoke to the Minnesota legislature to push votes for funding to help create more programs like this one. I celebrated a year of complete abstinence from alcohol and meth on November 11.

It was because of my home at Solace that I was allowed the grace to stumble. This is how true healing begins.