By: Sarah Terry-Cobo The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – A kitchen makeover could help more women struggling with substance abuse get their lives back on track. OKC Metro Alliance received $73,000 from two grants to help build a commercial kitchen for its women’s sober living initiative, Firstep. Connie Schlittler said once the construction is completed and the kitchen receives health department certification, then she can apply to become a certified halfway house through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Once the agency certifies the women’s Firstep program, they’ll be able to offer treatment services to residents, which could improve outcomes. The Firstep staff will also be able to work on credentialing requirements to become licensed social workers. Schlittler is the only licensed mental health professional on staff. She outsources treatment services to Tri City Youth & Family Center Inc., an accredited outpatient provider.
The Sarkeys Foundation awarded a $50,000 grant to cover demolition costs for an existing building that will house the new kitchen and dining area. The Oklahoma City Hospitality Club on Friday awarded a $23,000 grant to cover the architect’s and engineer’s costs on the project. Another foundation has inquired about funding the remaining costs, once it’s established, Schlittler said.
Firstep has a men’s and a women’s sober living center. Residents can stay from six months up to two years and have access to parenting, financial management and life skills classes. All participants work to cover a portion of room and board, which is provided free. The women’s center can hold up to 56.
The women’s Firstep property is a collection of buildings including what was once a residential home. The house now serves as the kitchen, pantry and dining area, and has a few small offices for the center’s on-site staff down a narrow hallway.
April Prentice is the program assistant and provided a tour Monday morning through the existing kitchen. It has a commercial sink and a commercial stove. But there is no ventilation hood, one of the largest obstacles to becoming health-department-certified. A large commercial mixer occupies one corner, but it can’t be used because the kitchen doesn’t have the right outlet for the equipment. A dish sanitizer is attached to the commercial sink, but it doesn’t work. The vinyl floor tile is missing in some spots.
Food is stored in several rooms behind the kitchen, including what used to be a garage. A walk-in cooler broke years ago and now serves as dry storage.
Prentice said the cook is always a Firstep participant. She arrives at 4 a.m. to start the morning’s preparations and make sure the cereal bar and snacks are stocked.
“We always have snacks on hand, because when you’re going through withdrawals or coming off of drugs, you crave sugar,” she said.
Breakfast ends at 8 a.m. and lunch is served from 10 a.m. to noon. Dinner is from 5 p.m.to 5:30 p.m. Some of the women have irregular working hours because they do shift work, such as at Dunkin’ Donuts. Those who work late shifts have a dinner tray prepared and stored so they can heat it up when they return.
It’s tough for everyone to fit into the dining area at once, even though not all 50 or so women typically sit down at the same time. There are two long dining tables that seat about 18 people.
Prentice said the women often have meetings in the dining area after mealtime ends. But because the kitchen is open throughout the day, those meetings are often interrupted.
Ardmore-based Southern Design Group is working on the construction documents and SRB will provide the survey needed to turn a former dormitory into the new commercial kitchen. Prentice said the building was damaged years ago. Parts of the former dorm have been used for storage for tools and old files.
Schlittler said her goal is to ensure the dining area within the new kitchen holds all the residents at once. They’ll move and reuse as much working equipment as they have to the remodeled space and buy new equipment, such as a dishwasher, to replace broken machines.
Prentice said the new dining area can be used as a meeting room and the old kitchen can be turned into a meeting room and will hopefully have fewer interruptions.
“And bigger offices, that’s my dream,” she said.
Mental Health Department spokesman Jeff Dismukes said there are only five certified halfway houses in Oklahoma. The health department requires that residential treatment centers providing custodial-level care have commercial kitchens.
Julia Jernigan, executive director of the Oklahoma Behavioral Health Association, said having certified treatment centers are important to ensure clients get the level of care they need, and state agencies can provide oversight of the process. It’s also important to have staff members who have credentials to provide treatment to participants, she said.
“That makes our field more in line with health care,” Jernigan said. “AA won’t work for everyone, so if you are trained, you might be able to help them in a different way (that better suits their needs).”
Schlittler said she expects she’ll be able to retain residents in the program longer if she can improve the services she provides.
In the meantime, she said the remodeling must be high-quality, so there’s a long-term benefit to her organization.
“I don’t want to go cheap,” she said. “The investments we make in the building have to be good.”