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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
House Speaker Greg Hughes Greg Hughes; Emily Leix; Kristen Newman, customer service manager at Nicholas and Company and Leix's supervisor; and George Adondakis, Salt Lake branch president at Nicholas and Company, talk in the warehouse at Nicholas and Company in Salt Lake City on Thursday, August 16, 2018. Leix got a job at Nicholas and Company through Operation Rio Grande's Dignity of Work program.

SALT LAKE CITY — Twelve years ago, Emily Leix said she had a bright future ahead of herself.

She went to college. She worked in sales for a major computer corporation.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Emily Leix works at Nicholas and Company in Salt Lake City on Thursday, August 16, 2018. Leix got a job at Nicholas and Company through Operation Rio Grande's Dignity of Work program.

But everything changed, Leix said, when she was introduced to drugs at the age of 27, which she said started a downward spiral to a life of crime that led her "in and out of prison."

"I just (made) bad choices after bad choices," she said.

But Thursday, Leix had what she called her "second chance."

She now has two months under her belt in her new job as a sales representative for Nicholas and Company, a wholesale food distributor.

She is seven months sober.

And she has her 3-year-old son, Noah, who she called her "driving force."

"It's just been incredible," Leix said. "Like, I keep doing the next right thing and all these blessings are just pouring down on me."

Leix is one of about 100 people who have landed jobs in Operation Rio Grande's Dignity of Work program, an effort launched by state officials in November to help people who come from homelessness, drug addiction, or other difficult circumstances find work so they can become self-reliant.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Kristen Newman, customer service manager at Nicholas and Company and Emily Leix's supervisor, speaks with Leix at Nicholas and Company in Salt Lake City on Thursday, August 16, 2018. Leix got a job at Nicholas and Company through Operation Rio Grande's Dignity of Work program.

"It's amazing when people give you a second chance and help you build your life to something that you want it to be, not just something that you have to because of bad decisions you've made," Leix said, wiping tears from her eyes as she shared her story from her desk at Nicholas and Company's Salt Lake City warehouse.

This week, state leaders have celebrated Operation Rio Grande's one-year anniversary by celebrating success stories of individuals who have turned their lives around in the multiagency effort to end crime around Salt Lake City's downtown homeless shelter, create more drug treatment opportunities and to, ultimately, help people back into society through work.

But, as leaders head into year two of Operation Rio Grande — in preparation of the June 2019 closure of the downtown homeless shelter — state leaders hope to help many more people out of homelessness or addiction and into jobs.

"It's the light at the end of the tunnel," said House Speaker Greg Hughes as he described the Dignity of Work program.

So far, 106 people have been employed through the program, which uses partnerships between willing employers and the state's Department of Workforce Services to connect clients to jobs.

The program has also worked with 333 people to create employment plans and has 221 job postings available, according to Loggins Merril, manager of the Dignity of Work program.

That's after an estimated 5,000 people lingered in or near the Rio Grande area last summer, either because they were homeless, in search of drugs, or looking to make money off of drug addiction, Hughes said.

"You have to stop the fountainhead of homelessness," the speaker said, adding that he hopes to see many more people take advantage of the work opportunities being offered through the Dignity of Work program.

"It is daunting to know there's a lot more to do in the coming year," Hughes said. "No one's getting soft at this point. We're just more resolved to continue that trajectory."

"We have to," he continued, pointing to the state law that requires the Road Home's downtown shelter to shut down in June of 2019. The three new homeless resource centers now under construction to replace the 1,100-bed shelter, along with the Midvale family homeless shelter now open, will only have a combined bed count of 700.

"If we don't get this right in the next year and we don't see these numbers reduced and we don't see more people taking advantage of help, the whole operation won't work," Hughes said. "And we've put a lot of time and energy into this with the expectation that it will."

Over the next year, Merrill said his team will work to improve the Dignity of Work program to hopefully employ more clients, to try a new incentive program to keep job seekers engaged in the program and connect workers to transportation so they can get to their worksites.

For some who don't want to or are not ready for work, the program will work closely with the drug court system to connect them with treatment opportunities to support employment as the end goal, Merrill said.

Also, the program will be developed to fit inside the three new homeless resource centers currently under construction so employment can be a diversion strategy to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place, Merrill said.

Nicholas and Company is one of several employers who have partnered with the state's Department of Workforce Services to employ people who have struggled with homelessness, drugs or have criminal backgrounds trying to turn their lives around.

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Because of her experience in customer service, Leix's name rose to the top of the resume list, said Gia Dowling, director of people and culture for Nicholas and Company.

"She's a gem. We're lucky to have her," Dowling said.

Dowling said her company wanted to participate in the Dignity of Work program because it related to the company's mission statement, "Philotimo," a Greek word that means "love of honor," she said.

"We see the honor and dignity in all people, and everyone deserves a second chance," Dowling said. "We are happy to be a participant in that."