Welcome Home works for these grads

NEWTON – There was a graduation ceremony in Surrey last week, but it wasn’t the typical grad affair. Here, students didn’t merely celebrate an end to lectures and stern professors and midnight cramming. Instead, they celebrated a return to life.

Life, you see, is worthy of celebration, particularly when you’ve missed so much of it.

Take Kelly Dyle, for example. Now age 30, the Quesnelborn woman has “struggled with addiction” since she was 13.

“By 2012, I was homeless. I’d lost my children, and was doing anything I could do to get loaded. I couldn’t have face-to-face conversations or wear a short-sleeved shirt. I’d

basically given up on life.”

Dan Falconer has a similar backstory. Born in Regina, he didn’t like himself much during his school years. He tried to fit in but ultimately ended up gravitating toward the stoners and the users. In the years following school, he worked restaurant kitchens and became a regular at late-night parties that often ensued. Soon, he says, “I was relying

on cocaine just to get to the next day.” He alienated family and friends and moved from town to town, “to try to distance myself from it. But no matter where I went, there I was.”

And then there’s Nathan Driggs. A daily user of heroin and Xanax, the Phoenix native had set himself up in Las Vegas, where scoring was easier. Self-esteem had always been an issue for Driggs and, once in Vegas, he “didn’t think recovery or a normal life would ever be possible.”

Enter Surrey’s WelcomeHome Life-Skills Academy. Launched in 2003 when furniture magnate John Volken sold his 150-store United Furniture Warehouse chain to found the John Volken Foundation, WelcomeHome has as its focus a two-year addiction recovery program designed to morph the members of its 19-to-35 age group demographic from down-and-out user to up-and-coming winner.

For a one-time $5,000 “intake fee,” students are fed, housed nearby and, hopefully, weaned off their addictions. They partake in activities together, learn together and are taught job skills in the Foundation-owned Price Pro grocery store, located below the academy. It is very much a group effort. And if our three examples are any indication, WelcomeHome works – at least for the sincere.

Today, Dyle, one of five graduates at the most recent WelcomeHome grad ceremony, held Sunday, May 4, is outwardly the polar opposite of her prior self. Seemingly free of the demons that plagued her, she oozes confidence as she spoke to the suit-and-tie crowd. Candid about her past yet looking at a present brimming with accomplishment – including becoming a program director at the academy and getting her children back in her life – she exemplifies what WelcomeHome is all about.

Fellow graduate Faloner has been gainfully employed since January. And he’s going to school to become the social worker he himself had so badly needed for most of his younger years.

For Driggs, meanwhile, the ceremony marked not just the end of the program, but the end of his stay in B.C.

The following day, he returned to Phoenix to reconnect with family and start anew, with a “100 per cent different” outlook on life.

It wasn’t easy. Driggs describes the two-year program as “pretty rigid. I was initially shut off from friends and family for eight months before I was even allowed a phone call or visitor.”

Falconer says it “took nearly a year for it to set in,” while Dyle refers to the “blood, sweat, and tears” of her experience in the program.

At the outset of the ceremony, a large group of young people rose to their feet and delivered, powerfully and loudly, the foundation’s “Student Promise.” To say it felt a wee bit army isn’t stretching the truth. But it also felt earnest. Indeed, the entire evening was a study in camaraderie and sincerity. Army? Maybe. But in this war, there didn’t seem to be many losers. Not on this night.