Teri Rooney was 17 years old when someone first told her that she drank too much. It took the next 32 years for her to realize they were right. She got married, had two kids, and got divorced along the way. Her drinking increased and so did other risky behavior. She worked as a personal finance assistant, and started stealing from her employer to support a $300-a-day crack habit. Her boss eventually caught her. An addict in recovery himself, instead of pressing charges, he arranged for her to get a Rule 25 assessment. The assessment helps a person receive public funding and find the right chemical dependency treatment.
The assessor referred her to Wayside Recovery Center‘s treatment program for women. It was February 2009. She was 49, but not intent on quitting. With her house in foreclosure and criminal charges hanging over her, she just wanted to get away. Something clicked, though, after 30 days. She had pulled her Bible out of the closet, read a passage sitting on her bed, closed her eyes, and the feeling washed over that everything was going to be okay. “That was my spiritual awakening,” she says. “It was March 17. That’s the day I got it.”
She accepted that she had a disease over which she was powerless. The program helped her heal. Her counselor suggested a grief workshop for her to process her feelings about her adult son being paralyzed in a violent crime. “That was Wayside Recovery Center saying, ‘What does this particular client need? How can we help her?’” she says. “They cared about Teri Rooney. I wasn’t a number. I wasn’t dollars to them. My counselor remembers my sober date every year.”
She completed the nine-month program (three months inpatient, six months outpatient) and has been sober since. After two years of sobriety, when she was eligible for employment at Wayside, she started working in funding. Several roles later, and 11 years sober, she’s now recovery services manager. She tells her story to her clients, which gives her instant credibility and compassion for them. “I’m able to tell them, ‘I’ve walked in your shoes, I came through this program, I get it,’” she says.
As news about the coronavirus intensified in February, Ruth Richardson, Wayside’s CEO, and her staff took note. They did not know when or how it would reach Minnesota, but they wanted to be ready to protect their clients: low-income women, many of them homeless, being treated for substance use disorder. “We looked at what was happening in other places, like Italy, and wanted to be as proactive as possible,” Richardson said in a Zoom interview. “Many of our women have conditions that put them at higher risk, which is one of the reasons we had to respond quickly so we could stay open and not put people out on the street.”
The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown measures that have followed have been especially hard on residential facilities treating substance use disorders. In the past few months, it has shuttered at least 13 treatment centers across the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. But Wayside is meeting the challenge, in large part due to its ability to nimbly shift and adapt, so that women suffering from addiction—often compounded by other issues of mental health, physical abuse, sexual trauma, and poverty—can get the help they need.
Wayside Recovery Center began as a shelter for homeless women in 1954. After the founders recognized alcohol and drug addiction was common among its residents, it shifted its focus in 1963 to provide treatment for substance abuse. In the ‘70s, they included treatment of co-occurring mental health issues.
Wayside also became one of the first centers in the country to house children with their mothers during treatment. Today, Wayside Recovery Center operates its residential Family Treatment Center in Minneapolis—one of only five providers in the state where women can live with their children (up to age 11) while receiving treatment—and runs its residential women’s treatment center in St. Louis Park. It coordinates outpatient services through its Wellness Center in St. Paul and offers supportive housing in St. Louis Park.
In their effort to be proactive, Richardson and her staff implemented protective measures in early March, more than a week ahead of Gov. Tim Walz’s state-of-emergency declaration March 13. They held house meetings with residents to discuss new rules about restricting passes out of the houses, eliminating visits, and moving their outpatient services online to reduce exposure. “I wasn’t sure how the conversation was going to go,” says Rooney. “I thought some of the women might figure it’s not worth it to stay sober, and just leave. But only one did. The rest stuck it out, which has been pretty amazing to watch.”
(A request to interview current Wayside residents was declined, for confidentiality reasons.)
The changes, and the challenges they present, have been dramatic. At the Family Treatment Center, where women are more likely to complete treatment if they don’t have to separate from their children, many of the women had nowhere else for their children to stay. Pre-shutdown, the children used to go to school, off-site daycare, and other community centers such as the YMCA while their moms participated in therapy groups and treatment activities. By March 25, Wayside was able to secure a $35,000 grant from the Sauer Family Foundation to provide education, art therapy, and therapy groups for the children on-site, which enabled their mothers to continue their treatment. The grant also allowed them to provide additional meals for the children who had received free or reduced breakfast and lunch off-site, as well as to purchase computers and hotspots for the children to continue their schooling.
Carrie Salsness, senior director of residential treatment at the Family Center, gave me a virtual tour of the three-story brick house with dark wood accents in the Whittier neighborhood. The top two floors are bedrooms, most of them set up with twin beds or a bed and a crib. The main floor has offices, a dining area (where they’ve had to switch from buffet service to individual boxed meals), and a living room, with couches and an area divided by a toddler fence. Several small children were watching cartoons on television while an older child did schoolwork on a computer on the other side of the room. In the basement, there are more offices, a common area with a large-screen TV, and group rooms. Out back, there’s a large playset bounded by a wooden fence. The house, with comfortable furniture and walls painted soft colors, does not appear clinical. “We try to give it a homey feel, because this is their home,” Salsness says.
Shutting down visitation created another challenge. “Isolation is a huge issue for someone dealing with substance use disorder and mental health issues,” Teresa Evans, Wayside’s chief advancement officer, says. “So making sure they have access to family and loved ones is crucial.”
They made this possible through a Facebook fundraising effort that raised enough money within 48 hours to buy four iPads residents could use for virtual visits with loved ones. They also set up rooms to provide confidentiality for these interactions.
When Wayside shifted its outpatient services to telemedicine, it was able to secure the necessary equipment to convert within two days. As a result, they have reached more women in need of treatment; their outpatient numbers were up 25% after the first three weeks. The Minnesota Department of Human Services had covered telemedicine one-on-one but not group therapy. A new federal waiver approves virtual group therapy, but treatment facilities don’t know if the reimbursement will be retroactive.
Richardson took over as Wayside CEO in July after working with the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. When she was growing up in the Frogtown neighborhood during the ’80s and ’90s, amid the cocaine epidemic, her parents fostered children who had been exposed to alcohol and other drugs prenatally. “That has been the groundwork for my work since,” she says.
As part of the effort to break the cycle, Wayside’s family program gives priority to pregnant women. Two clients have given birth during the shutdown. “We’re trying to reach children in pregnancy as early as possible, which gives us the ability to mitigate those impacts,” Richardson says.
She has no regrets about moving quickly to protect their clients. “Within this pandemic, we want to ensure people have access to addiction treatment and mental health services because right now those needs are so critical,” she says. “You’re jumping in blind, hoping you’ll be able to address lost revenues. But lost revenue you can replace. Lost lives you cannot.”
Richardson, also a state representative from Mendota Heights, expresses some frustration that the legislature has not responded more quickly. But she also recognizes the multiple issues requiring attention amid the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Wayside’s leadership had the foresight to track federal legislation on small-business assistance and gain board approval so the organization was ready to apply the first day forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans were available. A day later, Wayside had secured approximately $660,000 to cover its payroll, mortgage interest, and rent—one of the first applicants to be approved.
When they decided to make masks mandatory for staff members and voluntary for residents, Wayside tapped its social media networks. They received so many masks, more than they needed, that they were able to give some away. When Rooney put out a call on Nextdoor for indoor activities, people responded generously with books and jigsaw puzzles. One program alum donated $200 for a pizza party. “Their compassion has been incredible—it has really shone through in a time like this,” Rooney says. “When people at Wayside see that caring and compassion, it helps.”
Staff has had to figure out how to help residents adapt to changes in daily life, with outings to grocery stores, Target, and other destinations now reduced to essential medical or legal appointments and a weekly walk, staying 6 feet apart, to the corner store for cigarettes. They’ve gotten creative with Jeopardy, Bingo, and even a Saturday-night dance party in the St. Louis Park site parking lot hosted by DJ Lemonhead (whom Rooney discovered on Facebook) spinning music from the back of his truck. “That’s the funnest thing to date,” Rooney says. “We danced and twirled for an hour. They were so thrilled.”
The coronavirus and the changes implemented as a result have caused suffering in many ways, yet they have also exposed goodness among the women at Wayside, as they have in the community at large. At the house meeting where the new restrictions were announced in early March, there was a mother in the family program who had just received visitation rights for her four-month-old child. “The pain in realizing how the virus was going to prevent her from being able to hold her child was heartbreaking,” Richardson says. “I watched everyone in that meeting rally around that woman—all of us were feeling it. I was impressed with the grace they were showing.”