Central City Concern

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One Mom, Two Kids, and a Reclaimed Story

May 26, 2015

Children of addicts are fated to repeat their parents’ destructive patterns. Addiction leaves broken families in its wake. The cycles of poverty and addiction doom the next generation to predictable, bleak fates.

That’s what the studies and stories say.

But Ruthann is more than a statistic, and she’s determined to write her own story. Ruthann is a survivor. A devoted and fiercely loving mother. A testament to transformation and hope for something better.

Ruthann’s family history is marked by addiction and substance abuse. Her mother and grandmother used methamphetamine. When Ruthann was 12, her mother died from drug-related complications. Then Ruthann started using, becoming a part of that painful legacy.

She became a mother in 2001 when her daughter, Kaylee, was born. She had her second child, Kingston, six years later. Being a mother didn’t stop her from using. Even as she used, Ruthann’s smarts kept her employed for a while, but she eventually lost her job.

Soon after, Ruthann experienced a much bigger loss. Because of her chronic drug use, she lost custody of her children to the Department of Human Services. Eleven months passed by the time she could demonstrate she was ready to be a mother again.

But in late-2011, she left her children in the care of an acquaintance she barely knew and disappeared for six days to use. She recalls this choice with regret and shame. When she came back for her children, 10-year-old Kaylee refused to continue living with Ruthann.

“My daughter was done with me at that point,” says Ruthann. They arranged for Kaylee to live with a responsible contact who had been introduced to the family when DHS first intervened.

With only Kingston in tow, Ruthann went on what she describes as “a long, bad run.” For months, Ruthann lived aimlessly: no job or place to call home, and endless time to use drugs. All the while, a DHS worker was trying to locate her.

She and Kingston eventually made their way to a hotel. Their stay was a revolving door of people dropping in to use.

Ruthann began noticing 3-year-old Kingston behaving differently.  He threw prolonged tantrums. He slept in the bathtub. Otherwise normal sights and sounds overstimulated him. Knowing that their surroundings were unhealthy and dangerous, Ruthann chalked up Kingston’s behavior to their environment.

Tired, homeless, and nearly broke, Ruthann eventually called the DHS worker. She confessed her most recent months of drug use. She said she’d consider getting help, though she didn’t truly mean it.

The case worker drove Ruthann and Kingston to a local residential treatment center. Ruthann’s first full day in treatment – May 10, 2012 – is also that last time she ever used illegal drugs.

As Ruthann began the arduous process of re-training her body and mind to function without drugs, she also entered into therapy with Kingston to better understand his behaviors. Eventually, Kingston was formally diagnosed with autism.

“At first they couldn’t tell if he had a neurological disadvantage or if I had inflicted so much trauma on him that this was his brain’s natural response to it. I either created [the conditions for] his response or I neglected Kingston’s needs. Either way, I felt so bad.”

While she grappled with her newfound insight into her son’s behavioral struggles, Kaylee visited Ruthann. Ruthann offered her a chance to come live at the treatment center.

“She told me, ‘I’m not going to live with you until after you’re done with treatment. Your mom OD’ed when you were my age. I don’t want to live with you while you do that to yourself,’” Ruthann remembers.

Kaylee’s words stung as much as they were true. Ruthann felt challenged by her daughter and burdened by the guilt she felt about Kingston’s development. She was at a crossroad.

Would she live and die as her own mother did? Would she leave her kids to grow up as Ruthann had?

“I made the choice to be a mom, for my kids to have a mom,” Ruthann says.

A day after Kaylee’s birthday, Ruthann and Kingston moved into the Letty Owings Center (LOC), Central City Concern’s residential treatment program for women who are pregnant or parenting very young children. The move “was the best thing I could have given Kaylee,” Ruthann believes.

Typically, the sense of community that mothers create during their time at LOC becomes an integral part of their treatment. But because Kingston couldn’t get along with the other children, Ruthann found it difficult to build relationships. She was constantly pulled away from treatment classes because he would get kicked out of daycare. Ruthann often felt defensive or guilty about her son’s struggles.

With the help of LOC staff, Kingston soon enrolled in a nearby school that worked specifically with children with behavioral and sensory needs. Ruthann knew that this school, combined with the therapy Kingston continued to receive, was exactly what he needed to find stability and success.

“The date Kingston got into his school is as important to me as my clean date.”

Slowly but surely, Ruthann gathered momentum. She was able to attend LOC’s treatment classes consistently. Her counselor helped Ruthann “learn about myself and about my own worth.” Ruthann became an indispensable volunteer teacher’s aide at Kingston’s school, a role that unearthed her exceptional abilities in a classroom setting. LOC’s environment gave her opportunities to use the skills she learned from Kingston’s therapists.

“We would actually get through a meltdown,” she recalls. “It was empowering. I felt like I was making a difference in my kid’s life. He taught me to love from this other place in my heart that I had never used.”

Ruthann gradually grew to trust the other mothers and one today is like a sister.

In December, Ruthann graduated from the Letty Owings Center. She moved into Laura’s Place, CCC’s supportive transitional housing program for women who have completed treatment at LOC, while she waited for longer-term housing to become available.

She continued to strengthen the foundation of her sobriety by completing an outpatient addiction counseling program through the CCC Recovery Center (CCCRC).

Soon after, Ruthann received the keys to her own apartment at Sunrise Place, one of CCC’s alcohol- and drug-free family housing communities. At long last, she and Kingston were reunited with Kaylee.

Ruthann’s kids now have a focused, sober mother. They have a home and stability. She works with CCC’s family mentors, who provide Ruthann’s family with ongoing support and encouragement. They create community with other Sunrise families.

“This is where my kids and I learned to eat at a table together every night,” Ruthann explains. “My son was able to build friendships. My daughter found friends. Our family traditions were built here.

“All these programs – LOC, CCCRC, housing – allowed a woman like me to stand strong and come out of it on her own two feet.”

Ruthann’s own two feet stand at the edge of a road paved with potential: features of life that her history said weren’t in the cards.

She works now as an assistant claim manager at a local carwash, a position she was promoted to. Her employers know about her past; their lack of judgment makes her love the job more. But it’s no secret that Ruthann’s sights are set on 2017. That’s the year her criminal record will be expunged, giving her the clearance necessary to work as an employee in a classroom setting.

Through her church, she’s begun leading a support group ministry for single mothers. Under Ruthann, the group has grown to nearly 20 moms, most of whom are also on the path of recovery. The group works to “remind ourselves that it’s not about moms getting their kids back; it’s about kids getting their moms back.”

Ruthann glows when she talks about her son’s progress. Kingston is meeting multiple academic and behavioral benchmarks. She gladly picks up extra shifts to pay his tuition because Kingston “is where he needs to be.”

Kaylee is a responsible, studious 8th grader with an artistic side – “an old soul,” Ruthann says proudly. But she sees something deeper in the daughter who, upon visiting her in treatment, demanded better of her mother.

“When I look at my daughter, I feel forgiven. I feel loved,” Ruthann says. “I feel like Kaylee shows that the cycle can be broken.”

Ruthann’s story is of a daughter who never had the chance to be raised by a sober and present mother. She’s determined to make sure that Kaylee and Kingston know that their mother’s presence is unwavering.

“Being a mom means unconditional everything. I get to show up every day,” says Ruthann. “Kaylee shows me that my story is not her story. Her ending can be different.”

The cycle of poverty and addiction began writing Ruthann’s story for her. But the tenacity and love that pushed Ruthann to take full advantage of CCC’s programs to become the mother her children deserve are the very same qualities that have allowed her to reclaim her story.

Ruthann’s ending will be different, too.

“CCC has helped me change my whole life.”



National Volunteer Week: Final Thoughts from CCC’s Volunteer Coordinator

Apr 17, 2015

Strolling throughout downtown Portland, or most anywhere in Portland for that matter, it can be difficult not to sheepishly eye the rows of sleeping bags, pass along a spare coin or dollar to every outreached hand, or read the handwritten messages upon various pieces of cardboard. A few folks might stop, share a few words with the owner of that sleeping bag, outreached hand, or piece of cardboard, and walk away from the conversation wondering what is being done - or what can be done - to get them a bed, job, or the care they may need.

It is this internal questioning and curiosity that brings many individuals to Central City Concern wondering who and how they can help in giving one of their most personal and valuable resources - time.

CCC’s volunteers are not only some of the most compassionate, patient, and friendly individuals who step through our doors, but they are also the ones doing it without any expectation of compensation. Looking at the impact of our volunteers over the last 12 months, one can quantify their efforts in any number of ways. With over 8,500 hours put forth, a financial impact of over $175,000 (the equivalent of paying monthly utilities for 1,731 Portland homes) and the thousands of sincere smiles, handshakes, and waves given, CCC’s volunteers, simply put, help us do more and do better. 

From sorting donated clothing with our textile management project to sorting data and entering it into a spreadsheet, or teaching patients how to properly take their new prescription in our Old Town Clinic Pharmacy to teaching residents of CCC housing how to creatively express themselves, the variety of ways our volunteers have the ability to simply “help” never ceases to amaze me. Not only are these individuals working to improve the community in which they live and we all share, but they are also choosing to place themselves at the center of social change.

The catalyst for many of our volunteers is a simple one – they notice a problem in their community, and they want to do something about it. What separates volunteers from many others, though, is that they are taking action. Through acts of kindness, generosity, and a belief in a shared responsibility to one another, volunteers are able to keep our communities moving forward. Although the question of “what can be done?” is not a simple one to answer, CCC’s volunteers prove that it is a question that can be answered in many different ways.

On behalf of Central City Concern and those we serve, thank you to volunteers, both within our programs and everywhere else, who are making a tremendous impact in their communities one week, one day, and one moment at a time. 

Eric Reynolds, Volunteer Coordinator



Volunteering in the Living Room - Part 3

Apr 16, 2015

We’ve heard from the Living Room volunteers. We’ve also heard from Central City Concern clients. Today, Robin Robberson, the Living Room Coordinator, and Erika Armsbury, Old Town Recovery Center’s Director of Clinical Services, share their thoughts about the value and virtue of volunteerism in the Living Room.

• • •

How do volunteers benefit from giving their time in the Living Room?
Robin: People are really moved by volunteering in the Living Room. They really enjoy the Healing and Recovery group. Sometimes they work out their schedule to make sure they can be a part of that and participate in that with our members. I think that helps our members.

And the relationships. The people. Volunteers are struck by the kindness. Some of our members may present themselves in a way that might scare people at first, but eventually volunteers don’t want to leave because of the relationships they make.

Erika: I think what we all get from being here in this building (Old Town Recovery Center) is an opportunity to be of service. For a lot of people, that’s a drive. I think it’s an honor and a privilege to be invited into people’s lives and to experience people’s lives that others would never imagine has the richness that it does.

You have a front-row humanistic experience that other people drive by and don’t even notice. Your ideas and myths about people living with mental illnesses and living without homes totally get dispelled.

What’s the most important quality an individual brings to volunteerism, whether in the Living Room or in general?
E: I think compassion. I think any volunteer experience can be deeper if it comes from being driven by service, not just by gain.

R: Open-mindedness.

E: Definitely open-mindedness. And a willingness to do more listening than talking. Coming in understanding that you have something to learn and that you’re not coming in to do. Let’s be honest: being service-driven can have a flip side where a person wants to just come in and “fix the poor people.” Compare that to coming into our world – this world – and just being an ear. That can actually help a person more. Creating and taking advantage of opportunities to engage.

R: Like that saying, “Don’t just do something. Sit there!” But truly, having an open mind and just being willing goes a long way.

E: It’s the same quality that’s good for clinicians is good for volunteers. A willingness to engage on the same level. To come into the room and equalize the power differential.

What makes volunteering in the Living Room a unique experience?
R: In the Living Room, we never talk about diagnoses. We never talk about medication. It’s highly discouraged to bring up clinical stuff. And for volunteers, that helps create this environment that is centered on people. Just people.

You’re coming into a center that you know is a community mental health clinic, and you know that. But when you’re here volunteering, you’re creating relationships with people. When volunteers come in, they become just as much a member of the Living Room as someone who is receiving services here.

E: I think that volunteering here provides a level of exposure and compassion that I think ultimately has to have an effect on the volunteer when they go back out into the world. Like, form volunteering here, they can have a myth about mental illness or addiction or homelessness dispelled, and then they’re talking with someone else about it, and so on. I think about the far-reaching effects of that and how it can change people’s lives when they’re here.

How do you see Living Room members benefiting from the presence of volunteers?
R: Members get attached volunteers. But that’s why I try to get a lot of volunteers coming through the Living Room: so that they can make lots of different relationships and de-institutionalize and get to build social skills with a whole bunch of different people.

E: Like getting accustomed to a start and end.

R: Right, having that kind of practice is really useful and helpful. It helps people learn flexibility, which is really important for the folks who utilize our services.

And there’s a ripple effect for a Living Room member who comes in here and meets a volunteer that they don’t know, who gives them their undivided attention. And that happening over and over again with different volunteers. It really builds people’s self-worth.

Can you share something that simply would not have happened if it weren’t for volunteers?
R: There’s a member of the Living Room who, on first glance, you’d think is just a grumpy old man. He and several other older members regularly participate in yoga sessions led by our yoga volunteers, Andrea and E.B. He acts like he hates it, but he really doesn’t. I’ll hear him in the same breath, say “I hate this. Now what do I do?”

He participates in yoga week after week. Every time. Why? Because he knows that someone cares about him.

It took us half a year to get people to participate. But the yoga volunteers kept showing up, kept coming and participating in group sessions. And they kept putting the time in to get to know people. It’s the relationships that our yoga volunteers have built with our Living Room members that makes all of this work.

Any last thoughts?
E: I started off as a volunteer at Bradley Angle house 20 years ago. Volunteering fed my soul. I hope that’s what it does for our volunteers, too.

R: I love how diverse our volunteers are. I love that we have younger volunteers and older volunteers and people of all kinds. Some volunteers have been touched personally by mental illness in their families. Other volunteers come in here with little understanding of mental illness or addictions, but they are willing to be present. I love our volunteers.

• • •

During National Volunteer Week, we’re exploring the value and impact of volunteerism at Central City Concern through the lens of the Living Room, a program of the Old Town Recovery Center (OTRC). Earlier this week, we’ve seen shared:

CCC’s Volunteer Coordinator, Eric Reynolds, will be sharing some final thoughts about volunteers tomorrow.

The Living Room is a shared, safe place for OTRC patients, many of whom are actively living with and managing behavioral and mental illness. It functions as a place for clients to come and engage in group sessions, hang out, find community, and participate in group activities. Anyone who participates in the Living Room – clients, CCC staff members, interns, and volunteers alike – is known as a member.



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We Are Family 2015

Join us on May 6 at We Are Family 2015 to benefit Letty Owings Center and Family Housing programs. Sharon Wood Wortman, Portland's "Bridge Lady," will join us as our featured speaker. Learn more »

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Through craft roasting coffee in Portland, OR, Central City Coffee supports the clients and mission of Central City Concern. Available at local retailers and as office coffee! Learn more »
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