By Mark Nicklawske
The two-story white house on a wooded lot just below The Hills campus has two very different views out its front and back windows.
Off the back of the house, residents can see The Hills health and recreation center and the top of its historic main administration building. The buildings are familiar places where some residents were watched closely by teachers and counselors, worked through personal issues and learned new life skills.
The front windows look over a quiet suburban street where people plant gardens, walk dogs, leave for work and raise families. This view is unfamiliar to those in the house. It’s a view of typical adult life, where people work hard, live peacefully and go their own way.
A half dozen or so young men enrolled in The Hills Community Transition Program live in this two-story, white house; and like the house, they are situated somewhere between school life and the adult world.
The four-bedroom, three-bath St. James Avenue home holds up to eight young men ages 16 to 21 – many former at-risk students who found help at The Hills. In return for a nominal monthly rent, these young men must hold a job, complete their education, keep the peace and work toward life goals.
Community Transition Program Case Manager, Molly Johnson said the house is a place where young people can experience independence for the first time, but must also practice personal responsibility.
“The older they are the more committed they are to improving their life,” said Johnson, during a property tour. “A lot of them are thinking ‘I’m not going back to mom’s and I really have to figure out how to take care of myself.’ That’s what this program is really here for.”
Life in the house looks very much like life in a typical multi-student college apartment. Residents sleep two to a room, share a bathroom and pile up basic groceries and leftovers in a single kitchen refrigerator. A living room common space features overstuffed couches arranged around a big screen television equipped with the latest video games.
It’s a busy place, young people come and go like a college dorm, but there are no textbook stacks or hoodies with school colors.
Johnson said everyone is required to have a job – part-time if still in school, full-time otherwise. CTP staff work with residents, stressing life skills like grocery shopping, healthy eating habits and light housekeeping. “We want them to see how they need to manage money and eat healthier…and this doesn’t mean eating frozen pizza every day.”
The tour shows off second floor bedrooms and a corner office for CTP staff. A clean, modern and spacious kitchen includes tall, school-sized lockers for personal items and an open floor plan.
One resident, a 20-year-old Brainerd native, is home for the day. He works at a Miller Hill Mall department store and is trying to land a job at Animal Allies, caring for stray pets. The young man has spent two stints at the house and said he appreciates the transition program support.
“I don’t have any family around here so it helps me out that way,” he said.
Duluth is a hard place to live, said the young man. With no car, transportation is difficult and big city life is challenging for someone from a small town. But he looks forward to the next steps in life and seemed confident he would find success when he leaves later this year.
Johnson said a new resident will be selected from qualified applicants. Young people go through a thorough screening process, which includes interviews with their family, social workers, probation officers and any past case managers. Those admitted to the program are regularly tested for drugs and alcohol.
“It’s really about what they want to do,” she said. “What is their attitude? Are they setting some positive goals? We want to see where they want to go.”
The Hills established the Community Transition Program at the St. James house 15 years ago. Most residents come from The Hills main campus but outside referrals are accepted. Johnson has been involved in the program for 12 years and has seen its success.
“I think The Hills has been able to prove over time that kids can be responsible,” said Johnson. “In order to participate in this program any kid has to voluntarily say: ‘I want to be part of this.’
It’s like enrolling in college far, far from home where courses focus on life skills, personal therapy, job placement or chemical dependency treatment.
“A lot of kids will talk about how they feel safe here and that they don’t have to worry,” she said. “A lot of them come from difficult backgrounds where there’s been gang activity. It’s not easy what these kids are doing here. They’re breaking with the values that they’ve been living with a long time, all their lives really, and they’re not necessarily supportive of them back home.”
For many in the Community Transition Program, the two-story white house, is more than a place to learn, it’s a new home and a neighborhood where they can start a new life.