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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Food is prepared by students of Salt Lake's prisoner diversion program in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016.
We are working with a population where every one of these people had failed other programs or had gone back to jail. Their recidivism rate was 100 percent before joining our program. —Tim Stay, CEO of The Other Side Academy

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a frigid 20 degrees outside the historic Armstrong Mansion in downtown Salt Lake City. In the entry hall, three young women take off their overcoats, greeting visitors coming in behind them with friendly humor and confidence.

It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago each of these young women wore the label of repeat-offender — caught in a cycle of addiction and despair, on her way back to prison or jail — before landing here at The Other Side Academy, a rehabilitation program for addicts and drug offenders.

With cheeks reddened from the cold and boots crusted with ice and salt, there is nothing downtrodden about these women. They might be taken for college students or successful career women — clearly at ease with themselves, with each other, with their world.

“Those are my girls!” says Lola Zagey, 48, with obvious pride.

Zagey, a small woman who seems much bigger than she is due to her ebullient charisma, is one of The Other Side Academy’s program directors. She is herself a "wounded healer," a former heroin addict now responsible for mentoring the program’s 12 female students and managing the academy's office.

The academy is a self-funded program that grabs people who are down to their last chance, finding its applicants through prosecutors or directly from prisons. It gives participants a degree of freedom in a controlled environment. With no locks on the doors but strict accountability to their peers, they get up early, work hard all day, and coach each other at night as they rebuild their inner drive and character over a two-year period.

Traditional responses to hardened addiction, said The Other Side Academy's CEO Tim Stay, vacillate between 90-day clinics that don't work and longer prison and jail terms that do nothing to heal, putting people back on the streets with the same problems they had before. The philosophy of programs like the academy, Stay said, is to take the time to get to the core and rebuild the person.

"Our students have been to jail and rehab over and over," Stay said. "And even though they desperately wanted to change, it never worked. With this model, we find the two years of hard work, intensity, and peer accountability to be critical for lasting change."

On this icy afternoon, most academy residents are out of the facility, working at the Promise Land food truck, which sells “sweet and savory” funnel cakes downtown, or The Other Side moving company, the city's top-rated mover on Yelp.com. These two businesses pay for the program and are an important part of the program's philosophy.

The Other Side Academy began in 2016 with a handful of students. Now one year in, the program has 54 students and is looking to expand. It's covering 85 percent of its operating expenses and planning to be self-sufficient by next summer. For now, the remaining operating expenses are covered by donors, as the academy takes no funds from the city or state.

“We calculate that having 54 students off the streets and out of jail for a year has saved the taxpayers of Utah around $2.75 million at the average of $50,000 per year to incarcerate them, prosecute them, or provide social services for them,” Stay said.

Meanwhile, the program is gaining attention from outside the state. In November, delegations from Denver and Peoria, Illinois, visited the academy. Both cities are now actively working with the academy to build programs of their own.

Barely a year after it opened, The Other Side Academy is growing fast, building a powerful internal culture of change, paying for itself, and preparing to expand to other states.

Wounded healers

The academy is modeled on the San Francisco-based Delancey Street Foundation, which for nearly 50 years has been helping hardened convicts and addicts transform their lives.

The Other Side Academy accepts only about 20 percent of applicants, and attitude, not space, is the limiting factor. Successful applicants need to be desperate to change and humble enough to accept help. Students agree to a minimum two-year commitment, though most are expected to stay three or even four years.

Each new student comes into the program with minimal privileges, assigned to a mentor who is a few steps ahead of them. This is the “wounded healer” model, also known as a "therapeutic community," based on the notion that some things can only really be taught by someone who has been there.

The motto for the Delancey/academy approach is “each one teach one.” New students are given partners who are only a few steps ahead of them, and leadership responsibilities build over time.

Students rise early and work all day, gradually earning privileges and leadership roles. Three evenings a week, the group comes together for “games,” where they review each other’s progress and hold each other accountable.

Attitudes and personal ethics are reshaped by peers who are just a few steps ahead in their own recovery, and community culture is thus critical to success.

“This is a peer driven community,” Zagey said. “It’s their home. They help each other.”

A maturing culture

"Drugs are never the real problem," said Joseph Grenny, the chairman of Provo-based Vital Smarts, a consulting company focused on changing corporate culture. The Other Side Academy's story began when a convict in the Utah County Jail learned about the Delancey Street model in one of Grenny's co-authored books and reached out to Grenny for help.

"Drugs are just solutions people attempt to use for problems they couldn’t deal with, emotions and painful things that happen in their lives," Grenny said. But over time, he added, drugs turn users into "lying, manipulative, self-centered narcissists."

And treating addictions without repairing underlying damage to personality and character will rarely work. That is why the The Other Side Academy/Delancey model requires that students be nestled in a strong community over a sustained period of time working with people who were once in their exact situation.

But this culture takes time to develop, and it needs to be seeded with people who have internalized it. The most important early move The Other Side Academy made, Grenny said, was to hire four experienced Delancey veterans, all former addicts and convicts, to seed the culture at the academy. These four directors owed their own recovery to Delancey, and they had spent years in leadership roles there.

During the early days, Grenny said, the four resident directors would “sleep with one eye open” — not because they feared their students, but because of the weight of responsibility.

Now they have allies, Grenny said. A year in, the culture has taken root, and the 20 oldest students have become a core who hold everyone accountable to the organization's expectations. The theory of the "wounded healer," he said, is that students at the academy can "hear things from other students that they could never hear from a therapist or parent or authority figure."

"Our oldest students have been here now for 14 months, and they are a lot more mature,” said Zagey. “They know they belong."

Describing how this works, Grenny mentions one student, "a tough dude," who "arrived pretty full of himself and manipulative.”

"I knew we had made a leap with our culture when one of the tenured students — someone he would have eaten alive in jail — called him out very publicly and pointedly for his behavior," Grenny said. "It was stunning to watch. The big guy looked angry, resentful … and even confused.”

"Over the next few days the new guy began to absorb what he had been told — and shed the tough guy image," Grenny added. "Today he is one of the more gentle and compassionate men in the house."

We’re good, thanks

As the academy settled into its new home, well-meaning neighbors and volunteers were sometimes a bit puzzled that it didn't seem to need them.

“When I walk into TOSA, 12 guys give me a hug, call me by name, and thank me for coming,” said Adam Maher, 43, a service missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assigned to help homeless, addicted and other struggling people in the neighborhood.

But they don’t really need him. When the academy first started, Maher said, he approached the directors to offer professional services from a network of volunteers and support from the local LDS ward. He offered a list of hundreds of volunteers, including attorneys and doctors and everything in between.

The Other Side Academy's leaders were polite and friendly, Maher said, but their message was, "We'll call you if we need you." And they haven't called.

“They have such a rigorous curriculum,” Maher said, “that they don’t really have much room for the inner city mission.”

And yet, Maher said he kind of realizes that the insularity is part of the magic.

“When I walk in there, I feel the spirit,” Maher said. “There is more happiness, light, and joy coming out of those candidates than any of those I’ve seen in other places.”

“TOSA is easily the most successful and even the most spiritual of all the programs doing this kind of work that I’ve seen,” Maher said. “Who am I to criticize. They don’t seem to need us. But they are doing a good job without us.”

The academy might not need the neighborhood, but the neighborhood might need it.

Shirene Saddler, an administrator at the Avenues Courtyard retirement home next door to The Other Side Academy, certainly thinks so, appearing visibly crestfallen when she hears it may end up relocating.

The academy had planned to expand around the current block in downtown Salt Lake City, demolishing three abandoned and dilapidated buildings on the other side of Avenues Courtyard — buildings currently occupied by vagrants and drug addicts, according to Soren Simonsen, an architect and city planner who is working with the academy.

But those three buildings are designated as historic by the city, and the exceptions The Other Side Academy would need to build a downtown campus there are unlikely to be granted. With expansion blocked in Salt Lake, the academy is looking for another location in the area.

"I would be devastated," Saddler said. "They have done so much good. They volunteer, they put on a talent show for the residents, they do my landscaping, they are eyes and ears, and they are just friendly and respectful."

Continuous improvement

But the academy must expand, Stay said, and if it cannot do it here, it will have to do it elsewhere.

Since it opened, the academy has taken in 95 students, and 41 of those failed the program, returning to parole or probation, and in some cases jail or prison. This is not surprising, Stay notes, as the academy only takes in the most difficult cases, often those facing lengthy sentences.

“We are working with a population where every one of these people had failed other programs or had gone back to jail,” Stay said. “Their recidivism rate was 100 percent before joining our program.”

Meanwhile, the academy is working to improve its model. In mid-December the team met with Rob Butters, director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah. Butters will be working with the academy to track both near- and long-term outcomes.

This focus on proving results distinguishes The Other Side Academy from Delancey Street, which for all its acknowledged success within the law enforcement community has always resisted hard data research.

The academy is serious about continuous improvement. In mid-December the team flew to North Carolina to visit another Delancey-inspired program there.

The team came back determined to borrow a transitional model used in North Carolina, which provides housing for recent graduates as they move into schooling or jobs, in exchange for the graduates sticking with the social and behavioral support activities.

"In North Carolina," Stay said, "95 percent of graduates who do the transitional program at TOSA at the end of that year are drug free and employed. We think that's quite remarkable, and we're working on putting that in place."

This is a key issue in the program because the traditional Delancey model expects students committed for two years to voluntarily extend for more time. And while Delancey does not keep detailed data, success rates for those who do not extend are thought to be quite low.

The hybrid model could be a game changer for long-term success, Zagey said. She notes that other transition paths will be available, including an option to remain after the initial two-year stint for a "master's degree," a leadership training program to learn how to direct new sites, and a "scholar in residence" program for those pursuing a college degree.

Playing in Peoria

Despite its sterling reputation among criminal justice professionals, the San Francisco-based Delancey Street program has expanded little and been replicated rarely in its nearly 50 years of existence.

In contrast, The Other Side Academy was built with expansion in mind, with missionary fervor and the belief that any large city should be able to do this. Just a year into their pilot project, the academy has already been approached by groups in Denver and Peoria, Illinois who are set on executing replication.

Tim Krueger, who heads the Peoria group, is a retired corporate CFO. He twice visited Delancey Street in San Francisco before learning about the academy. In late September, he flew to Salt Lake with a colleague, where they spent eight days doing an academy boot camp.

They worked inside the academy, Kreuger says, assuming the role of a new student, with all the restrictions and routine duties, including hours spent scrubbing toilets and showers. He also worked with the academy’s food truck and spent a day lifting boxes with the moving company.

Krueger participated one of the thrice-weekly meetings where students hold each other accountable for their attitudes or behavior. Here, he was personally called out for having twice been caught jay walking.

He also participated in a Saturday night karaoke, where they compelled him to sing. That same night, he saw a new, obviously insecure young woman get up to sing. "She got up and sang by herself, and she cried, and the rest of the team got up and hugged her and sung with her," Krueger said.

After those eight days as a resident, it is likely that no one outside the program knows it better than Krueger.

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Krueger, who already has a building ready in Peoria, is now developing community support and working with The Other Side Academy to build a replication model that gives sufficient autonomy and flexibility to the new project, while keeping the vital elements of success in place to protect the academy's brand.

"I have never seen better cultural values in any company I've worked with," Krueger said. "None come close. It's all based on one thing. They say, 'Be good.' Don't act good. Don't try to feel good. Be good."