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Once-shuttered 'life-changing' Utah detox center for women with children reopens

MURRAY — Rachel Santizo, staring at the front door, covered her mouth with her hands.

"I'm so nervous," she said.

The last time she'd walked through that door — more than 6 ½ years ago — she was a "homeless drug addict," she said.

Santizo said she "loved the needle" and shot up heroin and meth between seven to 10 times a day.

Her "favorite thing to do was dumpster dive," she said, and her ex-boyfriend's favorite thing to do was probably to "strangle me, pistol-whip me, verbally and emotionally abuse me."

Before Santizo — standing in front of the Volunteers of America-Utah's Center for Women and Children, a substance abuse detox center that had shut down more than four years ago amid funding troubles — internally wrestled whether to once again enter the place where she had struggled to kick her addiction, she told her story to a crowd who had gathered to celebrate its reopening.

Many wiped away tears as Santizo told her story — and how she was "personally devastated when the center closed down" in 2014.

"Before I walked into those doors, I was lost. I was broken. I was full of guilt and shame. I was completely confused with no direction in my life," she said, adding that she had "no idea what a detox facility was," but "what I did know, I was exhausted, I was scared, and I wanted to change."

The day she entered detox — March 14, 2012 — is "the day my life changed," Santizo said, and a day so dear to her heart that she has it tattooed on the back of her arm.

Since then, she's also regained custody of her two children.

Santizo received hug after hug, from old friends and people moved by her journey, as she continued to stand in front of the door, unsure of whether to enter.

But when Mary Jo McMillen, Santizo's old mentor and executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, told Santizo to "hold my hand," the two women walked in together.

Almost immediately, Santizo found Room 107 — and the bunk where she slept.

"This is where I stayed," she said, staring at the bed. "The thing is, I could stay here again. I'm one decision away from staying here again."

Santizo said she remembers sleeping there, wondering how she was going to do it, and "not thinking I was worth anything."

But now, Santizo said it's "not just about me anymore," because she knows so many other women and children who "need a safe place to stay."

"I'm so glad that it's reopened so that other women can go through what I'm going through right now," she said. "Because I believe in change. … I want others to have the opportunity that I did."

Now, Santizo — more than six years sober — works for numerous homelessness and substance abuse treatment organizations. She's the recovery outreach specialist at the drug treatment center Odyssey House; teaches fitness at Fit to Recover, a gym for people in long-term recovery; and volunteers at Utah Harm Reduction and Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness.

"I never knew that life could feel so good," she said, calling the center "life-changing."

"And it all started with me walking through those doors," she said.

The women's and children's center, 697 W. 4170 South in Murray, previously ran for 15 years before it shut down in May 2014 after government grants were cut, forcing Volunteers of America-Utah to consolidate its services into a larger facility in downtown Salt Lake City.

But Wednesday, after Volunteers of America secured $850,000 in one-time money for renovations and $1 million for ongoing operations from the state, the 32-bed facility could reopen. It's meant to help keep women struggling with addiction stay with their children while they transition into drug treatment.

Volunteers of America expects to transport its first clients next week, said Kathy Bray, president and CEO of Volunteers of America-Utah.

"This is such a special place, run by all women for women and their children," she said, noting that it will serve about 450 women and children a year.

"The beauty of a facility like this is that people do recover. They start their journeys here, and then they go on to treatment from here and continue their lives of recovery for themselves and for their families."

Inside the detox center, Georgia Gregersen stopped in the doorway of one of the rooms and stared at a portable crib sitting next to one of the beds. A tear rolled down her cheek when Santizo stopped to give her a hug.

Gregersen said the crib reminded her of one she had when she was living in a hotel room with her son, before she left him when he was 7 months old with his grandmother so she could try to overcome her heroin addiction.

"It's the worst feeling in the entire world," Gregersen said of giving up her child. "It feels like your whole world is falling apart, like a piece of your heart has been ripped out of your body."

Gregersen said she was pregnant with her son in 2014, right around the time the detox center closed.

"I just remember being desperate for a place (like this)," she said, calling Wednesday's reopening "bittersweet."

Gregersen said she is more than four years sober, but doesn't have custody of her son. She said he has since been adopted and has a loving family, but she hopes to connect with him again someday.

"I just hope I can make myself into the person that he would be proud to call his mom, to someday be worthy of having a relationship with him," she said.

Though Gregersen said she detoxed "cold turkey" herself, a center like the Murray facility would have been a great help.

Bray urges any women seeking help or who may want more information about the detox center to call 801-261-9177. More information can also be found at www.voaut.org.