SALT LAKE CITY — Destiny Garcia is the first face someone sees when they walk into the Salt Lake County Mayor's Office.
She answers the phone. She takes questions. Her No.1 job is to make sure constituents are heard.
On first impression, Garcia is matter-of-fact and attentive. She's cordial and knows what good customer service should look like.
Nothing about her gives away her past — except maybe a faint scar above her lip.
Unseen are her once-broken bones. The six screws in her ankle. A dent in her temple from when she was punched by an abusive ex-boyfriend.
The abuse led to pain pills. Then needles. She said her full-blown heroin addiction started in 2014.
Garcia went from working on a college degree in criminal justice and social work to living on the streets and shoplifting to feed her addiction. Then came a criminal record, and what seemed like an endless cycle in and out of jail cells.
Fast-forward four years, Garcia, 38, sat in a conference room in the Salt Lake County Government Building, wearing silver hoop earrings and a business blouse.
She had been on the job as the mayor's office receptionist since May 1. In one week, she would graduate from drug court.
"I love it," Garcia said of her work and her new life. "I love how I'm not treated like a drug addict. Everybody knows my story, but nobody ever treats me like my past."
Garcia was one of more than 5,000 arrested as part of Operation Rio Grande since last summer. Her arrest date, Aug. 21, is seared into her memory. It was the day that everything changed for her — even if she was furious at the time.
She was waiting for her dope dealer when she was picked up on 12 outstanding traffic tickets and shoplifting charges.
"I didn't have no money, didn't have no dope, I was going to be sick," she said. "I was full-blown addict mentality."
But when she spent some time in jail, she said she realized this time was different. When she was offered drug treatment through the new county program, Garcia said she "bawled my eyes out."
"I was so happy," she said. "I was ready."
Garcia was one of 15 Operation Rio Grande arrestees who graduated from Salt Lake County's new drug court program on Wednesday.
One by one, each graduate shared their stories of drug addiction, crime, pain, damaged relationships. Along with them, a friend or family member spoke in front of a crowd packing the Salt Lake County Council Chambers, where they celebrated their successes and thanked Operation Rio Grande for saving their loved ones' lives.
There was Skyler Anderson, whose sister told of how he battled depression his whole life, which fed a spiral to addiction. There was Dustin Bowles, whose father spoke of how he'd lost a child for years to drug abuse and would catch himself wondering if the next person he saw sleeping on the streets would be his son.
For Garcia, it was her 19-year-old son, Isaiah, who shared the pride for his mother and her new life.
"Growing up, I couldn't stand my mom, if I'm being completely honest," he said. "Because the decisions she was making I felt like she was choosing drugs over her family."
But after Garcia chose to complete drug treatment, "that hate has turned to love," and he said his mother's confidence "has shot up tremendously."
"Now she walks around the house with her head up high, knowing who she is," he said.
Wednesday's 15 graduates are the first cohort to cross the finish line of the 144 participating in the drug court program since it began in September 2017, according to Noella Sudbury, Salt Lake County senior policy adviser on criminal justice.
The program's retention rate fluctuates, but so far it's about 70 percent, Sudbury said.
Judge Todd Shaughnessy — the judge that oversees the drug court — called the program "grueling," comparing it to "what Navy SEAL training is to the military."
"It represents the hardest, most intense, most demanding court intervention that we have," the judge said when introducing the graduates Wednesday night. "Participants turn over every aspect of their lives to our treatment team. They spend hours upon hours … dredging up, talking about, and dealing with some very public and very difficult parts of their past."
But Wednesday night, after each graduate shared their stories with loved ones by their side, Shaughnessy OK'd all 15 to graduate. Their reward? All charges they had pleaded guilty to when entering the program were cleared from their records.
But along with the celebration, the judge warned the graduates that while they had cleared a major hurdle, more challenges would inevitably come with the daily grind of life.
"I wish I could tell you all it's going to be easy from now on," Shaughnessy said. "It won't."
'I can do this'
One week before her graduation, Garcia sat next to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who she first met face-to-face back in January, minutes before a press conference to announce a new sober-living program to house Operation Rio Grande arrestees in addiction recovery.
She was at the press conference to share her story, calling her arrest, her four months in addiction treatment at Odyssey House, and her time at the sober-living program a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me."
McAdams — who would later become Garcia's boss — said he met Garcia at the urging of Sudbury, who the mayor said wanted him to understand Operation Rio Grande wasn't just about "numbers and spreadsheets, but real people," McAdams said.
Sudbury would later think of Garcia when an opening came in the mayor's office for a new receptionist.
McAdams, who had been lobbying employers around the county to offer jobs to Operation Rio Grande arrestees as part of the operation's third phase, had a thought when the time came to fill the opening.
"I was asking employers to take a chance on people, to believe in somebody and give somebody a fresh start in life — and it kind of hit me, I should probably walk the walk," McAdams said.
So, Sudbury said she started looking for an arrestee who had work experience in customer service and who could keep a level head under pressure when dealing with angry constituents. Garcia, whom Sudbury said she remembered meeting in jail, came top of mind.
But Garcia, when offered to interview for the job, said she "almost didn't show up."
"I was scared," she said.
She explained why, first with a laugh, but her voice strained as she began choking back tears.
"Years of addiction and the fear of failing or not knowing what to do or (thinking), 'Am I really good enough? Can I do this?'" she said.
Then came two more interviews. County officials "made her go through the ringer," McAdams said with a smile.
Sudbury said one particular moment stuck out to her, when Garcia answered the question of how she would handle angry or confrontational constituents.
"I remember just matter-of-factly she said, 'I lived on the street, I'm used to that,'" Sudbury said, noting that Garcia also mentioned she went through de-escalation training while she spent time as a coordinator at Odyssey House.
"She said, 'I'm pretty confident that anything that occurs here I will be well-equipped to handle,'" Sudbury said, laughing as she recalled how Garcia's answer impressed interviewers.
Angry constituents versus angry, detoxing addicts? No problem, Garcia said.
"They're all human," she said. "It's the same skill you use."
A new life
Garcia said she's "so thankful" to have a full-time job, with benefits, that allows her to be self-sustaining. Now, she lives in a brand-new apartment in West Valley City with her son. Their agreement for the roughly $1,400-a-month payment is she pays $1,000 a month, and her son contributes the rest.
"I surprised myself," she said. "I knew I could do something in my life. I knew I was smart. I've been strong and independent before. But when you're in addiction, those are things you don't think you can accomplish again after being so low."
Garcia said she now turns to community service whenever she feels threatened with a drug relapse. She said she helps in a needle exchange program and volunteers at Odyssey House.
"Before Odyssey House and Operation Rio Grande, I was a liar, I was a thief, I was broken and hopeless. I avoided my family. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed of my actions and I felt disgusted with myself," Garcia said Wednesday night at her graduation. "But (now), I am completely transparent with who I am. I am no longer a thief, but I give back to my community."
"I am no longer ashamed of my past," she added. "I use my voice, and I am empowered to tell my story. I own my past, I own my present, and I own my future. I wear my scars now proudly."13 comments on this story
Garcia said she's come a long way, but there's still one thing she still hopes for — and it's the reason she's been willing to share her story.
She said her daughter — whom she once forgot to pick up from school when she was in the depths of her addiction — still hasn't spoken to her. Garcia said she hopes if her daughter sees how much her mother has changed, she'll want her back in her life again.
"I do it hopes that (she'll) see me," Garcia said through tears. "(My family) heard thousands of times I'm going to get clean. Maybe now they'll see it."