The Power of Employers Giving a Second Chance

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We are very lucky to have Lauren as part of the Pioneer Human Services family. She is a dedicated and passionate employee who goes the extra mile daily for the clients we serve at Pioneer Center East (PCE). Located in Spokane, PCE is a 53-bed residential program that provides semi-secure, sub-acute detox service and intensive inpatient treatment for people who battle chronic substance use disorder.

Lauren Hixon was originally hired as a residential treatment specialist at PCE and then transferred into client driver/transportation support, and now works as a community engagement specialist for the program.

She shared her journey with us to make others aware that there are still many barriers to navigate in employment when you have a criminal history.


How did your journey through substance abuse and incarceration begin?

When I was young I was an anxious child and in my early teens I never felt like I connected well with my peers. I started hanging out with a group of people who used drugs and alcohol regularly and found that drinking helped me relax and feel more social and accepted. My addiction progressed rapidly causing problems in my life. Also in my teens I started into a 10-year on and off abusive relationship that was severely damaging to me mentally and physically. I was in such a dark place for those years of my life. It’s hard for people to comprehend, but violence became “normal” to me. I was living a life consumed by continuous toxic behavior so I increased my drinking to cope with the trauma because that was the only way I knew how to escape the pain and helplessness I felt during that time. Very quickly into that relationship I became just as toxic as my partner. I learned to mirror that violent behavior while under the influence and we would fight constantly and I would become combative with others in my life too. This behavior caused many problems while under the influence over the years.

How did you cope?
For many years, during and after the relationship ended, I would drink continuously because I felt like this was the only way to escape the reality of where my life was. My brain was always in fight or flight response because of the years of trauma, so drinking seemed to ease that awful feeling. Almost every single time I was drinking I was blacking out. It seemed that even though that traumatic time in my life had ended, every time I blacked out my brain moved right back to that dark time and I was fighting people, suicidal or in a severe depressive state.  My behavior led me to more drinking, DUI’s, criminal behavior and multiple jail sentences.

When did you start to change?
Getting involved in AA was a big part of my recovery process. I have had the same sponsor for many years and she has always been there for me through the good times and the bad. Sponsorship and the fellowship has always been an unwavering source of love and compassion for me through the years. I also went through treatment, counseling, and got involved with a small group of people involved in the organization called “I Did the Time.” We all had criminal histories and discussed the barriers we faced and what we needed to do to succeed.

It was becoming obvious to me that society did not feel comfortable giving justice-involved individuals a second chance so this group was very inspirational and supportive to be involved in – I was not alone. They even introduced me to “Lobby Day” in Olympia where once a year they travel to Olympia to speak with legislators about what needs to change to give individuals with a criminal record a chance to succeed in society. This was a major breaking point for me. I witnessed that my voice has power and that by advocating for something I believe in I can create change.

How did your career path lead you to Pioneer?
I went to Spokane Falls Community College (SFCC) and did my work study as a professor’s assistant at the school and volunteered at The Women and Children’s Free Restaurant for those two years. I had my daughter right before graduation from SFCC and she was a major reason why I was so determined to further my education and obtain my bachelor’s degree.  

Then I volunteered at Union Gospel Mission Crisis Center for Women and Children while attending Whitworth University adult evening program. I cared for my newborn daughter during the day while my husband worked. During these years of volunteering with our homeless population I learned that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Giving back was a gift. It never felt like work to me. I also realized that volunteering and giving back was a vital part of my recovery process and helped me stay sober.

When I started my interview process for a full-time job I was full of passion and hope. But then I started experiencing blatant discrimination due to my criminal record. There were a few positions that I interviewed for where the hiring managers couldn’t believe how perfect a match my experience and education was for the position – but then when they saw I had a criminal record, their face changed and their eyes glazed over. I was no longer a fit candidate in their eyes and it was heart breaking.

How can a person move forward in life if they are only judged by their past mistakes? Why can’t employers look at how far an individual has come and where they stand today – rather than dwelling on the past? Eventually, I heard about Pioneer Human Services and applied for a position. I was hired for the residential treatment specialist position at PCE. Finally, an employer listened to me and didn’t judge my past. Pioneer was interested in my experience, credentials and my future goals.

What has been your experience working at Pioneer Center East?
I have amazing managers and co-workers at PCE! They are all so dedicated and I feel really, really lucky to be here at Pioneer. I work very hard because I made a promise to myself that because Pioneer gave me a chance, when others wouldn’t, I would put my heart and soul into this job. I still have that work ethic to this day. What I didn’t expect was that I would love this field so much. I truly believe that working in the field has been one of the most valuable keys to my sobriety. 

 In my new community engagement specialist position, I am doing what I love and I get to represent Pioneer within my community and find partners and resources that will help all of the needs of our clients.

On a daily basis, I check in with our PCE residents to see what their needs are and what their main struggles are in their recovery process. It is important to also discuss what their hopes and dreams are for the future to connect them on a path to living a fulfilling life. Some residents may want to go to school or get specific training, while other individuals are interested in mending family relations, seeking housing, getting a driver’s license or securing employment. Many individuals also have medical issues or legal concerns – so all of their needs are addressed and referral sources are shared.

I feel it’s very important after I help our residents with their basic needs like housing, food etc., that I find out what their strengths and passions are in life. I want them to feel that they ARE capable of all the things that our society or other people have told them they can’t do because of a criminal history or addiction.

Every human being is valuable and worthy of a second chance no matter what they have done in their past. Addiction is a powerful consuming disease and I never want anyone to feel like their addiction defines who they are as a person. Some of the most brilliant, compassionate and humble people I have ever met are in recovery or have a criminal history. Just because at one point we were consumed by addiction does not mean we are shackled to that identity for the rest of our lives.

Besides Work, What are Your Other Passions?
I have an amazing family that has been there for me through all the struggles and they have always loved me unconditionally. Over the years, I have tried to express my gratitude for how supportive they have been but I know staying sober is the greatest gift I can give them. My daughter is my heart. I never thought I would get to be a mom and every day I feel beyond blessed to have her in my life. So outside of work, I spend most of my time with her. I also love any outdoor activity like hiking, camping, biking, running, the ocean and photography. If I am outside, I am at peace and filled with happiness. Sobriety has given me so much to be thankful for. Not a day goes by that I don’t think this may have never happened and I am so grateful to get this second chance at life.

Thursday, February 21, 2019