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‘A ray of hope’: At Perspectives, Yolanda Farris addressed her trauma and addiction — and now helps others

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Yolanda Farris encourages mothers facing addiction to do what it took her decades to achieve: to let go of the shame, to admit trauma and to accept help.

For 34 years, Yolanda Farris’ life was powered by lies.

Addicted to cocaine, alcohol and marijuana since she was 14 years old, Farris told lie after lie to keep her job, to keep her children, to keep her pride intact.

“In my addiction I was such a liar,” Farris said. “I used to tell a lie, and then I’d think, ‘Why did you tell that lie? You don’t have to.’ But I did it out of fear. I hated myself. I was ashamed of my behavior, and I felt that if people knew the real me they would judge me.”

A single mother of three, Farris felt particularly fearful of being judged for her parenting choices. For decades, this fear kept the lies coming, but five years ago, when she made the decision to voluntarily enter an addiction-treatment program at RS Eden in Minneapolis, Farris knew she had to start telling the truth.

“I promised myself that when I did my [chemical dependency assessment], I would be real honest,” she said. “From that day forward, I decided to just be honest. Case managers, therapists would ask me things, and I’d say, ‘Don’t judge me. I already beat myself up. I don’t need you to get in on it.’ I just told the truth.”

These days, Farris likes to say that she lives and works in a judgment-free zone. A peer support specialist at Perspectives, Inc., a St. Louis Park-based residential support program for women in recovery and their children, she said she has found a place where she can continue to live her truth. She and her youngest son (Farris’ two older sons are adults and living on their own) came to Perspectives directly after she graduated from RS Eden; the two now live in an apartment on a quiet cul de sac on Perspectives’ campus.

“From the beginning, the women that work here were so supportive of me,” Farris said. “They didn’t judge me. They didn’t look at me like I was crazy. They knew I needed help. I didn’t want to be the person I was when I came in the door, and they helped me get to where I wanted to be.” 

Focus on family recovery

To be eligible for Perspectives’ housing and treatment programs, participants must have a dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction. They also have to come directly from a homeless shelter. Farris has never owned a home or even signed a lease on an apartment: Over her many years of addiction, she’d “couch hopped,” staying with relatives or friends but never having a place to call her own. At Perspectives, Farris and her youngest son were able to move into their own apartment, providing the then-middle schooler with his first stable home.

The two participated in a wide range of programs offered by the nonprofit.

Farris’ son took part in Perspectives extensive children’s programming, blossoming under the care of workers trained to recognize symptoms of trauma in young people.

“I now realize that I did a lot of damage to him,” Farris said of her son. “Just being in the addiction world is a trauma for children. I didn’t hurt him physically or anything, but I hurt him mentally, being homeless, and just living here and there.” Her son benefited from the stability and special attention; today, she said, he’s an ordinary high school senior: “His room is a mess, and he doesn’t always want to listen to me, but that’s normal.”

Farris has also blossomed at Perspectives, growing, in less than two years, from a self-described “frightened, overwhelmed” newcomer to a respected community leader that new program participants often turned to for support and advice.

When Farris gradated from the recovery program, Perspectives staff asked her to stay on as an employee, first as a supportive housing program liaison and recovery coach, and then, later, as a state-certified peer support specialist. She and her son now live across the cul de sac in Perspectives’ long-term housing. 

Farris believes that the fact that her life story feels familiar to many helps program participants feel that they can trust her advice.

Courtesy of Perspectives, Inc.
Perspectives offers extensive children’s programming.

“I always tell the new women, ‘Do you know what the word peer means? It means I’m like you,’” she said. “I say, ‘We may not look the same, we may not come from the exact same place, but we all ended up here together, me as well as you. I know what you’re going through. You don’t have to sugarcoat nothing with me. I’m here to help you.’ I walk with them in their recovery.”

Earlier this spring, Perspectives got a boost from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) when it was awarded a $59,800 opioid-crisis grant to support prevention efforts and increased access to treatment for the women the nonprofit serves.

Chuck Johnson, DHS deputy commissioner, said that his department selected Perspectives for the grant in part because it believes that the nonprofit’s focus on peer support from staff members like Farris is an effective way to help women achieve and maintain sobriety.

“Perspectives embraces the peer-support concept, which we think is a critical piece of their programming,” he said. “We are trying to encourage that approach through funding.” 

A safe place for mothers

Supporting mothers and their children is the name of the game at Perspectives, said Jeannie Seeley-Smith, Perspectives president and CEO.

“The success of our program is all about building a community of support,” she said. “We believe that’s where the real work gets done, when you have women who are supporting one another." 

The nonprofit began in 1976 as a community-based support and education program for women facing addiction in themselves and their loved ones.

Jeannie Seeley-Smith

“The primary focus at the beginning was to remove the stigma on addiction, especially for women,” Seeley-Smith said. “At the time, men were standing up in boardrooms and being applauded when they said they were alcoholics, but mothers still weren’t supposed to be alcoholics. It wasn’t talked about.”

For the first few years, Perspectives presented a series of speakers that focused on the impact of addiction on women, their families and their communities. The program eventually branched out to provide assistance to women who had been incarcerated on drug charges at the Shakopee Women’s Prison. At the time, advocates believed that recidivism rates for these women were high because when they were released from prison into the community, there were no programs available to help them recover from their addictions. Many quickly returned to drug use and ended up back behind bars.

Seeley-Smith took the lead at Perspectives in the early 1980s. Under her guidance, the nonprofit developed into a program that supported women as they returned from prison to the community.

The idea was, Seeley-Smith explained, to provide women with a sober housing and recovery program where they could live with their children. With help from then-Rep. Jim Ramstad, Perspectives was awarded a $1.8 million Housing and Urban Development grant. The program used the money to buy the first two buildings in what later became Perspectives’ campus. Eventually, the nonprofit raised enough money to buy all five buildings on the street.

Today, Perspectives has evolved form a “zero tolerance” sober housing facility to a comprehensive program that takes a trauma-informed approach to working with clients like Farris, women whose lives have been marred by addiction, violence, and poverty.  

“We began to realize about 15 years ago that the mental health issues and trauma these women had experienced in their lives were directly connected to their addiction,” Seeley-Smith said. “We saw the cycle: We weren’t sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, but we realized that if we wanted these women to get and stay sober, we had to address their mental health.”

Trauma is passed down through generations, so Perspectives staff emphasizes the importance of supporting and treating their clients’ children. The program, which as of last week housed 53 women and 100 children, offers a range of kids’ programming for young people from kindergarten to eighth grade, including Kids Connection, which offers after-school and summer options; and Kids Café, a hands-on nutrition program for children living on the Perspectives campus and in the St. Louis Park school district.

“We serve the children as much as we serve the women,” Seeley-Smith said. “That is truly what sets us apart.”

Perspectives hopes to continue to expand its children’s programming through Seed the Change, a $12 million capital campaign to fund a 16,000 square-foot addition to their Family Center that would provide more space for a new early childhood program and expanded space for all current programs.

“We want to create an outpatient treatment program for women and children, not just the women in our program, but also for women in the larger community,” Seeley-Smith said.

Long road to role model

If you believe that chemical dependency runs in families, it’s not surprising that Farris eventually gave in to addiction.

“I come from a family where both my mom’s parents were alcoholics,” she said. “My dad’s father was an alcoholic. My dad went to Vietnam and came home with a heroin addiction.”

While Farris doesn’t blame her family for her own addiction problems, she does believe that the chaos that surrounded her during her childhood made it easier for her to fall off track.

“Somewhere along the line, I got dropped, I got lost in that dysfunction,” she said. It wasn’t that she was raised in abject poverty, she noted: “Everybody in my family went to work. I was never hungry. I had the things that every other kid had, but somewhere along the line, I got lost, and it took up until now for me to get found.”

As Farris got older, her addiction meant that even though she worked full time until the day she went to treatment, she never was able to afford her own apartment. She and her children lived with relatives or friends, moving on when they got in the way.

“My addiction was so bad that I had to be able to get high all the time,” she said. “The only way I knew how to do that was to have a job, but all my money went to pay for my addiction.”

Looking back on her life, Farris realizes that her mother unwittingly enabled her addiction by caring for Farris' two older sons when she was too high to do it herself. Her mother died when Farris’ youngest son was young, and Farris realized that she and her son were on their own. She needed to clean up her act.

She went to rehab, she said, because, “I needed to learn how to live independently, to be responsible.”

Though she’d already been through an addiction treatment program at RS Eden, at Perspectives, Farris believes she began the long process of healing.

Taking the difficult step of acknowledging that she needed help with her mental health was tough, but Farris soon realized that seeing a therapist was key to getting a handle on her addiction. “I understand now that If I don’t get my mental health right then I can’t get this addiction right,” she said. “Because without therapy I’m all over the place.”

This is the message Farris tries to give the women she counsels, both one-on-one and in groups. She encourages mothers facing addiction to do what it took her decades to achieve: to let go of the shame, to admit trauma and to accept help.

“The shame, the past,” Farris said, “that’s the thing that keep a lot of us stuck in recovery. I know now that there isn’t anything I could do about it. I wish I could go back with everything I know now and start over, because I probably would be the secretary of state or something. But I can’t. What I can do is be a better person from this day forward. Every day I get up and try my best, and that’s what I tell the women here that they need to do. My job is to stay with them, to show them that it can be done.”

That honest, straightforward, unwavering support is what makes Farris so good at her job, Seeley-Smith said. She doesn’t force the women in the program to accept sobriety or address their mental health; she lets them decide for themselves. When they do take that step, she’s right there by their side.

“What’s so beautiful about Yolanda is she’s always there,” Seeley-Smith said. “She’s a ray of hope for the women here. They can she that no matter how hard her life was, she did it — and so can they.”

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