July 3 at 11:59pm

Signs of Progress

One of the goals at Interfaith Community Services is to direct clients to places where they can learn skills to help them improve their lives.

In the case of Jennifer Zak, something she learned has already made a difference.

Zak, 31, a mother of two, lived in ICS transitional housing on Aster Street for about a year and a half after completing the drug-rehabilitation program at North County Serenity House in January 2009. During that time she began studying American Sign Language and human development at Palomar College.

She still drops by Serenity House on occasion to visit. During one of those visits, she noticed staff members exchanging written notes with a woman who had walked into the agency.

“Our staff doesn’t know sign language,” said Amy Adargo, associate director of Serenity House. “We asked Jennifer to please go and let her know this is a safe place and if she hangs in there we will help.”

Zak quickly began conversing in sign language with the woman, calming her down and convincing her to stay.

Following their initial contact, Zak served as an interpreter for the woman during group therapy sessions and other occasions when needed.

“I was very nervous at first. She’s deaf and I’m hearing. I just learned sign language in the last year,” Zak said.

Zak was able to translate most of what she heard to the Serenity House client. What she didn’t know, she finger-spelled. By the end, she even got a compliment from the client.
“She said ‘For you being hearing, you’re pretty good.’ That made me feel really good about myself, but at the same time it made me sad that there are not enough services for deaf people that do have needs,” said Zak. “I felt good helping somebody, but what if I had not been there?”

Zak’s sign language knowledge was invaluable to that client, said Adargo.“I think it was phenomenal. This is a gal who maybe would not have been successful without Jennifer’s help on that particular day,” Adargo said. “She fully completed the program last week. If Jennifer hadn’t been there, she may not have stayed.”

Serenity House and Interfaith were there when Zak needed help. A ninth-grade dropout, she started using heroin and other drugs at 15. She got pregnant a year later and gave birth to her daughter, Aubury, at age 17.

Three months later, she was arrested for possession of heroin and spent most of the next 10 years bouncing between jails and other institutions. Family members cared for Aubury.

After becoming pregnant again, she found herself facing a choice: going to prison for violating parole or enrolling in a rehab program. She chose the latter, and entered Serenity House “April 16, 2008,” Zak said.

There she received substance-abuse treatment, and instruction in anger management, parenting, relapse prevention and developing self-esteem and coping skills.

She moved to Interfaith’s transitional housing upon completing the rehab program, receiving food, clothing and transportation assistance she needed to care for her son, Phoenix. ICS case manager Nicole Rideout accompanied Zak to a court hearing where she got felony charges dropped, paid outstanding fines and was commended by the judge for the change in her life.

While in the transitional housing program, Zak received counseling on how to take care of herself and her children, financial counseling and vocational case management. She also completed her GED and began classes at Palomar. She has two semesters left to complete her ASL certification and studies in human development.

“Jennifer’s going to make it,” said Adargo. “She is a phenomenal woman and mother, and giving back; you can’t ask for anything better than that. If she were looking for a job, I’d hire her.”

Now driving her first car, a 1996 Toyota Camry, Zak is living with both her children in her own Escondido apartment, obtained with assistance from ICS in arranging her Section 8 housing voucher. Aubury is attending Light and Life Christian School thanks to assistance arranged by Interfaith with the school, and has been accepted to Calvin Christian High School.

Zak will apply to Cal State San Marcos for the fall 2013 semester after finishing classes at Palomar. She plans to continue studying American Sign Language, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in adolescent psychology.

“I want to work with troubled teens in a group home setting. And deaf kids,” she said.
Zak has a definite appreciation for the help she received.

“Serenity House taught me the tools to stay clean, but Interfaith taught me how to live. I had no clue how to do anything, not even clean my house,” she explained. “I could never have my own home and kids without their help. … I’m happy for the first time. I don’t wake up stressed out worrying about what I’m going to do the next day.

“They changed my life.”

And along the way, let Zak change somebody else’s.