Reaching Out to The Other Side
Self-Help for the Homeless
It's Giving Tuesday, and there are so many worthy causes worth giving to today. So many fights worth fighting. But one of the most widespread – and daunting – causes would have to be the homeless crisis. Homelessness touches almost every community, and reaches a wide range of other crises including addiction, mental health, and economic inequality. For those caught in the destructive cycle, homelessness can often descend into hopelessness.
Fortunately there are many worthy groups out there working hard to break that cycle. The Other Side Academy is one of them. Based in Salt Lake City, with a second location in Denver, it’s a multi-year program that offers more than just temporary housing. It provides real, lasting change. It offers empowerment, by giving students the social, emotional and professional tools they need to turn their lives around for good.
Change for the Better
Instead of giving students spare change and a roof over their heads, TOSA gives them a unique combination of structure and responsibility, balanced with a healthy dose of “mutual self-help.” So Academy students get to play a vital role in their own growth and recovery. Beyond that, they’re also responsible for helping fellow students make progress as well. The idea is that “when A helps B, A gets better.” As students “matriculate” from freshmen, to sophomores, juniors and seniors at the Academy, they take on roles of greater leadership. Along the way, they not only get the inspiration and incentive needed to change, but also daily proof from fellow students and school leaders that change is both possible, and worthwhile.
Part of a Therapeutic Community
The Other Side Academy reached out to us a few years ago to see if we’d want to send care packages to their residents for the holidays. We were immediately taken by their mission as a “therapeutic community,” and the unique way they’re taking on the twin issues of addiction and homelessness. So we’ve been donating to their cause ever since. This year we also wanted to go a little further to feature the work they do. So we asked if we could speak to one of their students about his experience there. They put us in touch with Wiley Goodman, a student who had risen from incoming freshman, to graduate, to Academy leader.
Wiley’s path is not uncommon. In fact, most faculty at TOSA are former students, and they could all tell an inspiring story of how helping others gave them the incentive and understanding needed to turn their own lives around as well. But it’s hard to imagine someone telling that story in a way that’s more insightful, humble and compelling than when Wiley tells it.
“My emotional growth stopped at age 15. That’s when I started using drugs,” says Wiley. Addiction sent him into a downward spiral of living on the streets. “I was one of those guys you’ve probably driven by or seen on light rail, strung out with everything I owned in a backpack. In the wintertime I’d be in jail, and in the summer I’d be looking over my shoulder for the cops. I was stuck in that cycle.”
Fortunately, he took time during one of those jail stints to write a letter applying to The Other Side Academy. He was accepted and got the chance to join about 50 other students at the Denver facility, receiving food, shelter and valuable skills, all free of charge. Those students -- men and women of different grades and ages – all had to make a commitment to stay the Academy for at least 2 and a half years while remaining drug-free and crime-free.
But they also committed to something more than just “staying clean.” They made a commitment to each other – to teach each other, pull each other up, and hold each other accountable. Wiley says that’s what has made the difference. “Now I’ve got a sense of leadership and fulfillment. Of self-worth. I have to keep my stuff together because now I’m a leader and source of strength for this other person. It’s something I can lean on when times are hard,” he says. “Nothing has filled my cup like helping other people has.”
The workplace skills that students learn at The Other Side Academy include sales skills, business communications, and corporate development. But they also include “soft skills” like how to be responsible for yourself, or how to handle rejection. “It might be something as simple as not pushing your chair back in after leaving the dinner table. As I leader, if I see that, I might do a ‘pull up’ with you. Meaning I’ll take you aside, let you know by leaving it for someone else to do, you’re letting down all of us – making other people in your tribe spend valuable time that could’ve been spent on something else.” Wiley says the main philosophy is that if you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves.
Signs of Success
The high rate at which students “graduate” and low rate at which they fall back into addiction and crime, are a testament to the Academy’s unique model. But perhaps the strongest sign of its success is that much of the funding for TOSA comes from its own businesses – its furniture boutique, its white-glove delivery service and its moving company, which is one of the highest rated in all of Denver. Each one is staffed and led by students and former students.
The Other Side Academy has no religious affiliation and receives no government funding. So it does also rely on in-kind donations – both by individuals, and by businesses like ours. We’re proud to have played a very small part in helping these students on their path by providing premium hair and skin care products to help them look and feel their best. As Wiley notes, “In county jail you get one piece of soap. Everything else you have to buy. It’s a hassle to attempt basic self-care. So to get some high-quality body wash, face wash, that’s ours alone – it’s something really special.”
Join the Cause
If you want to learn more about the Academy, support their businesses, or make a donation yourself, just follow this link. You’ll be helping more people like Wiley to help themselves break the cycle and come out The Other Side. As he told us, “It’s given me a sense of direction and purpose. It’s reconnected me with my family. And I’m just happy to tell a little bit of that story.”
So are we.