Exodus Peer-to-Peer Native Recovery Director Lilah Westrick, left, stands on Saturday with Anita Perez, right, and Perez’s daughter, Janessa Meyer,
Exodus Peer-to-Peer Native Recovery Director Lilah Westrick, left, stands on Saturday with Anita Perez, right, and Perez's daughter, Janessa Meyer, at the nonprofit's office in Farmington. Perez, who was injured in a car wreck in 2004, says the Exodus program helped her "to live again." (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — An organization that rehabilitates and socializes people living on the streets due to alcoholism or mental illness needs support.

Exodus Peer-to-Peer Native Recovery, located at 419 E. Main St., specializes in psycho-social rehabilitation, with the goal of creating a new community of sober people, says the organization's director, Lilah Westrick.

Exodus offers evening classes to the homeless that serve as a bridge to higher education, and Westrick claims the group has 17 "successes" — people who have gotten off the streets and gone on to college — since opening in 2011.

San Juan College has student interns working at Exodus, teaching classes alongside Westrick and earning college credits.

The group is waiting on grant funding but is looking for additional money in the meantime to continue to operate its program. The funds would go toward rent and building expansion, as well as installation of a sprinkler system, which would allow Exodus to obtain a permit to house people overnight.

The classes offered by Exodus are designed for individuals who are addicts or who have serious mental illness. Classes focus on issues such as food chemistry and diabetes prevention. There are also community-based classes and some that focus on local history and art. Other classes teach the homeless how to re-integrate into society and how to get along with other people. The classes aim to encourage individuals to earn their GED diplomas or attend San Juan College, Westrick said.

"The boundaries for these people are gone in a lot of ways, and they need help learning how to build friendships, and how to react in ways other than fighting when there's a conflict," she said.

Individuals who come to Exodus are given food, and then attend an hour-long interactive church service before class. The church service, Westrick said, has cut down on the number of alcoholics who come in carrying bottles of alcohol.

Want to Help

To find out how to help Exodus Peer-to-Peer Recovery or for more information on their program, contact Lila Westrick at 505-402-7056.

"It helps us weed out the trouble-makers," she said. "Some people come in and just want to sleep because they've been drinking, and if they can't sleep they start fighting. We send those to The Roof (the overnight "wet" shelter run by the Salvation Army), because people have to be sober enough to attend class without falling asleep."

One Exodus success story is Anita Perez. A devastating car wreck in 2004 left her paralyzed and with brain damage, she said.

"I barely escaped with my life," Perez said. "I had to have a lot of therapy to learn to walk again, and I had severe nerve damage."

Before the crash, Perez worked as a Lasik director in an ophthalmologist's office. Because of the debilitating pain from the car wreck, Perez said she found herself addicted to the pain medication oxycodone. The addiction led to the loss of her job and home, leaving Perez considering suicide, she said.

"I was in really bad shape. I was a hundred pounds heavier than I am now, had severe (posttraumatic stress disorder), and I was agoraphobic and depressed," said Perez, a single mother raising her young daughter, Janessa Meyer.

When doctors discovered Perez's addiction, they took her off oxycodone, put her on a withdrawal program and told her to obtain peer counseling.

In 2010, Perez met Westrick, who took her in and started guiding her back from the brink of self-destruction.

"I was living in my pajamas and slippers at that point. I didn't care about how I dressed or how I looked," Perez said. "I had my daughter, who was 4 at the time, on a leash because I didn't know how to control her — I didn't know how to be a mother. Janessa wasn't talking and was only speaking gibberish. I was at the point where I was giving up on everything, and nothing mattered anymore. Suicide was the next step."

Perez said Westrick slowly re-introduced her to the outside world by teaching her how to do things like shop for clothes, prepare a budget and care for her daughter.

"She taught me how to live again. She helped me get out of my skin and once that happened, I wanted to go back to work," she said.

In 2011, Perez started working at Exodus as a peer counselor and went back to school. She will soon graduate from San Juan College with an associate degree and plans to obtain her K-12 teaching degree. Perez is currently searching for an apartment for herself and her daughter who, she says, is now the brightest child in her class.

"Janessa is so happy now," she said. "She keeps telling me, 'I can't wait until you're a teacher and can teach in my classroom!'"

Perez is also getting involved in things she enjoyed before the car wreck, such as acting and art. She's now part of the cast in the college's upcoming production of "The Laramie Project."

Recently diagnosed with epilepsy as a result of her injuries, Perez continues to grapple with pain, nerve and some brain damage. She also still struggles with PTSD and has a fear of driving. But, despite these challenges, she looks forward to a future of endless possibilities.

"I want to be an example for others and teach people that even if they are disabled, or an addict or are going through recovery, they can do the impossible," she said. "There's always hope, and I hope my story may help someone else to not feel ashamed. I hope people will come forward and get help. Lilah and Exodus re-teach people how to live again. But they have to be willing to change."

Leigh Black Irvin covers health for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4610 and lirvin@daily-times.com Follow her @irvindailytimes on Twitter.