Justin Goff was 14. He had been in and out foster care and schools. His parents had split up. Both of them, he said, struggled for years with drugs and alcohol.
It was a business card young Justin grabbed -- as though it were a life ring.
"A school counselor helped me. She gave me a Cocoon House card," Goff said. "I had a crazy home life. I had just turned 14. I was scared."
The Everett-based nonprofit agency helps homeless and at-risk teens and young adults, providing shelter and other programs.
Now 26, Goff works as a support staff member at two Cocoon House facilities. He works at the Cocoon Complex in downtown Everett and overnight weekend shifts at Cocoon House North, a teen shelter in Arlington.
"In a way, it's like being back home. It was my home for three or four years," the Everett man said.
Today, Goff will be at the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center at Everett's Comcast Arena for the Cocoon House Butterfly Graduation. He's not a speaker at the luncheon, but as an aspiring singer-songwriter he'll perform a song, "Love for a Child" by Jason Mraz.
The annual event recognizes teens and young adults who have progressed through Cocoon House programs. Medal winners are recognized by levels -- silver, gold or platinum -- which represent ways in which they're keeping their lives on track.
That can mean staying in stable housing, attending school, earning a diploma, keeping a job or adhering to sobriety. Platinum medalists may have completed a college degree, worked for two years in their fields, or shown responsible parenting skills.
Jen Chwalibog, director of development and community relations for Cocoon House, said that 50 young people will be honored today, including two at the platinum level.
One honoree came to Cocoon House as a 13-year-old girl. Now 18, she has a part-time job, a driver's license and will attend community college in the spring.
Sarri Gilman, a licensed family therapist who writes a column for The Herald's Good Life section, founded Cocoon House in 1990. She retired as its executive director in 2001.
"The philosophy has stayed the same all these years," said Gilman, who lives on Whidbey Island and will attend today's Butterfly Graduation. "Once a kid has kind of fallen out of the nest this young, they're not really equipped for what's out there. They don't know that," she said.
While some teens at Cocoon House come from homes where they had stability and support, Gilman said that many have backgrounds like Goff's.
"Some are coming from homes where there were no rules," Gilman said. "Some families are just tragedies. Nobody could come through that without a great deal of difficulty."
She likened Cocoon House to another teen experience.
"It's kind of like being in driver's ed, and you're in the passenger seat. They're saying, 'I'm going to turn left,' but it's a one-way street. At least they have an adult around.
"Eventually they kind of figure it out and do become good drivers," Gilman said. "It makes you cry. It's really a hard journey. They work harder to get there, and they've earned their accomplishments. They also own their errors."
In his job, Goff sees teens who remind him of the boy he once was. He recalled a childhood of being swapped back and forth between troubled parents, of rarely attending school, and of having no one to guide him.
He now sees kids adjusting to Cocoon House rules, curfews, homework, bedtime and regular dinners, just as he learned to do. "A time or two, they kicked me out, but I was never gone very long," Goff said.
"Kids will test your boundaries. Without some amazing staff members, those kids wouldn't stick around. Kids want to respect somebody, whether or not they realize it," he said.
"This place, in and of itself, probably saved my life," Goff said. "It feels good to come to work."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cocoon House is an Everett-based nonprofit agency serving homeless and at-risk teens and young adults at several sites in Snohomish County. Information: www.cocoonhouse.org/index
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