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Through Way Finders, I got my life back

February 10, 2023

When asked what brings her joy these days—a day, a place, a hobby—Lilliya Salem of Springfield laughs. “You ask a lot of questions!”

Between raising young triplets—sons Tony and Saliba and daughter Moriah, aged 5—and working more than 50 hours a week, free time is not something Lilliya gets much of. “I kind of go with the flow, whatever is thrown at me, I’m OK. You know?”

But Lilliya, who works as a recovery coach for Mental Health Association (MHA) and a personal care attendant (PCA), doesn’t veer away from the question, posed near the end of our brief interview. She answers it, confidently and clearly. 

“I really find joy and happiness in being able to help somebody, especially somebody who is struggling to recover from addiction,” says Lilliya, who also has three older children. “Because I’ve been there. I’m in recovery myself, I have five years as of December 2022. And I know what it’s like for people who are in recovery, thinking people will judge you, not knowing what to do next. It’s hard to get your life back. And through Way Finders, I got my life back.”

In fall 2021, Lilliya and her family moved into a Way Finders’ Residential Resource Center—first in Holyoke, currently in Springfield. She’d been living with her parents at their home in Springfield, but it wasn’t working out. “It’s only a two bedroom, and there were like ten people there, I made a room downstairs in the basement. And there were some issues with somebody else using substances that aren’t supposed to be around kids.”

Shortly after, Lilliya joined the Secure Jobs Initiative, a program offered through Way Finders’ Employment Support Services that is designed to help families increase their economic self-sufficiency.

“I started working with Lilliya in September 2021,” says Job Developer Carmela Albano. “She was ready to rock and roll, she knew what she wanted, her passion is mental health and substance abuse. She was really good at engaging with me, she has always been really motivated, always on top of it.” 

Together they worked on Lilliya’s resume and did a CORI background. And Lilliya learned that the caregiving support she was already providing to her mother could be a source of income: She completed a PCA course and now, as coordinated through Stavros, works as a PCA to her mother.

“I’m so grateful that I was able to work with Carmela,” says Lilliya. “A lot of people, myself included, if you have no education, you doubt yourself that you can do it. And when Carmela came into the picture, she was like, ‘Yes, you can do it.’ She gave me that boost of confidence. If it wasn’t for her helping me… I needed guidance and she guided me to where I needed to be. We clicked, that was the best part. She understood me as I understood her.”

In May 2022, when Carmela learned that MHA was looking for recovery coaches, she got really excited.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, Lilliya, this is your calling!’” says Carmela. “She went for the interview. They loved her, they hired her. I hear all really great things, that she’s happy with what she’s doing. And I always remind Lilliya that she did. I just gave that mentoring, that extra push. I always knew she had it in her.”

“I couldn’t believe they hired me, first of all!” says Lilliya, who completed Greenfield Community College’s Professional Recovery Coach career training program. “Because I had such low confidence and low self-esteem, coming out of addiction. The interview wasn’t just with my supervisor Tommy, he grabbed all the other recovery coaches and they all threw questions at me, like ‘What would you do here?’ ‘What would you do there?’ But it worked out very well. I love working.”

When the “Check engine” light came on in August 2022, everything she’d worked for seemed in jeopardy.

“When I tried the gas, it would just stall. For my job as a recovery coach, you have to have a vehicle,” says Lilliya, who drives to meet her clients wherever they are living. “Not having a car? It would’ve been awful. Because I love my job.”

The repair bill—over a thousand dollars, to fix sensors and more—was picked up by Way Finders. A key part of the Secure Jobs Initiative is removing barriers to a participant’s employment. 

“Beyond fixing my car, Carmela also helped me with gift cards for clothing at Walmart, and gas cards,” says Lilliya. 

As for the future? Lilliya hopes to continue to work on her credit in pursuit of purchasing a home. “People look down upon you if they find out you’re in shelter. That’s something I’ve learned to deal with, it really doesn’t bother me. I just want to get to my goal of buying a house and I’ll be good. Just getting my own place and decorating it.”