Second chances

Esplanade House presents new group of graduates, celebrates 25 years

Sophia Salas didn’t complete the program at The Esplanade House the first time around, but she’s now a graduate.

Sophia Salas didn’t complete the program at The Esplanade House the first time around, but she’s now a graduate.

Photo by Ken Smith

For Sophia Salas, graduation day was a long time coming.

Salas first entered The Esplanade House, a sober living/transitional housing facility in Chico, about a decade ago, seeking help to beat addiction while caring for her young son. For 18 months she stuck with the program, but old habits die hard.

“I got into a relationship with someone who was getting loaded, so I started getting loaded again, and I got kicked out for having a dirty drug test,” said Salas, who was among the Esplanade House residents honored at the program’s 2016 graduation ceremony on May 25. “I kept using for another few years, and then I got clean.”

Though she’d curbed her addiction—she will celebrate six years of sobriety next month—Salas still struggled to survive. She returned to the program eight months ago: “This time, I came back because I was homeless and had no place to go, and I needed a place that was safe for me and my son to stay. They gave me an option to come back if I stuck with it, and I’m so grateful they did.”

With her sobriety secured this time through, Salas was able to stick it out.

“I was able to continue my education, I got myself a car, and my son just turned 18,” she said, beaming as she held her graduation certificate. “The Esplanade House has given me the opportunity to be somewhere stable. They’ve held me accountable for my actions and helped me develop the tools and skills I need to be responsible and succeed. I’m ready, and I’m doing it.”

At first glance, the Esplanade House’s ceremony was typical of other graduation gatherings in Chico. There were certificates of accomplishment, cold cuts, cake and even a multimedia slide show featuring pictures and video of the honorees set to inspirational pop music.

But the images depicted were not of fresh-faced teens and young adults looking toward a bright future, but of smiling parents and children who’ve experienced severe setbacks and are embracing another chance at normal life. As Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” played over the video, voiceovers from the graduates detailed their experiences and accomplishments, punctuating song lyrics like “’Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.” The graduates spoke of getting their children back after they’d been taken away by Butte County Children’s Services Division, having felonies expunged from their criminal records, celebrating a year or more of sobriety, getting driver’s licenses, earning scholarships, starting college and finding full-time jobs.

In order to be recognized as a graduate, Esplanade House participants must complete a number of objectives. They must have lived on the premises—an apartment complex on East Shasta Avenue—for one year, which also requires that they be sober for at least that amount of time. They must complete a number of sober-living and life skills classes, attend support groups and counseling sessions, and accomplish numerous short- and long-term goals established with their case worker. Graduates will continue living at the complex for another year, with the focus shifting toward more transitional living skills, employment readiness and job placement.

As The Esplanade House exclusively serves parents who’ve struggled with addiction, graduation recognizes the entire family, in addition to individuals. This year’s graduates included 19 people from 17 families (in two cases, both parents are in the program).

This year also marked the Esplanade House’s 25th anniversary. The program was started in 1991 by developer Greg Webb and physician Gary Incaudo. It began as 12-unit converted motel on The Esplanade and the newer, 58-unit complex was built in 2001. Since it first opened, hundreds of families have graduated from the program.

The Esplanade House is overseen by the Community Action Agency of Butte County Inc. That agency’s chief program officer, Thomas Tenorio, welcomed the graduates and presided over a short ceremony last week before the men and women were called up to receive their diplomas.

Tenorio spoke of the organization’s quarter-century run and the community’s ongoing need for programs dedicated to sober living. Last year, the Esplanade House lost eligibility for a $150,000 federal grant it has received annually since 1998. This loss was due to changes in strategy for fighting homelessness, with the monies moving toward efforts that focus on the Housing First model. Housing First programs shelter people first, then attempt to deal with addiction and mental illness, and do not have sobriety requirements like the Esplanade House does.

“[The Esplanade House is important] because different people encounter things, whether it’s because of factors beyond their control, whether it’s because of poor choices, or a combination of both … because that’s what life is,” Tenorio said. “We want to be able to see there’s an opportunity for them to turn their lives around, for kids to have homes and not have to face homelessness.

“We’re pleased that after 25 years, this community has demonstrated such support and desire to help. Even through recent financial challenges, we’ve had many, many folks come to us, with small donations and large donations, and we have people working with the county so that maybe some of their dollars can help us with ongoing operating costs.”

The most moving speech was given by Esplanade House alumna Ajuana Clements. A self-described third generation addict, Clements fought back tears as she described dealing with addiction, arrests, homelessness and mental illness as a young mother of two girls. Clements eventually stayed at the Esplanade House, graduated clean and sober, and worked there for several years as a security monitor. Today, she is a grandmother and works for Butte County Behavioral Health.

“It’s a beautiful experience to be able to look back at my time at the Esplanade House, and to be a woman of recovery, and to see the impact it had on me and my family,” she said. “I walk with that; it’s a presence I have in my life, and it helps give me the compassion to say, ‘Me too,’ I’ve been there, and I understand.’”