Denfeld News

Dec. 25, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

Couple builds a successful life after troubled teen years
By Linda Hanson

As Patty and Jeff Hughes open their gifts this Christmas, there’s one gift that won’t be covered in wrapping paper and sitting under their tree.

It’s the gift of a good life they have crafted together.

Just a few years ago they were struggling teens living on their own. Now, at age 23, they are settled in an apartment in Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood. Both have good jobs and dream about having children and buying a house.

And on this first Christmas together as a married couple, they have each other.

When Patty was 17, she lived in her own apartment while attending Denfeld High School. When Jeff was 17, he dropped out of Denfeld and his family moved to Washington state. He decided to stay in Duluth and lived with a series of friends, sleeping on their couches.

The two met through a Lutheran Social Service program called “Oh No! 18,” which teaches independent-living skills to people ages 16-21. Jeff also lived in LSS’s Renaissance Transitional Living program, which provides housing and supportive services to homeless youths. He was one of the program’s first residents.

“Our paths led us together,” Jeff said.

Constant Progress

Jeff said he was attracted to Patty because she is down to Earth and nice to everyone. “She’s always willing to help someone,” he said.

Patty said Jeff not only is nice, but he’s always there for her when she needs him.

Their shared background as teens who lived on their own helps them understand each other. They also give credit to the LSS staff for helping them find their way at a difficult time in life.

Patty said “Oh No! 18” taught her how to pay bills and keep a job, as well as leadership and communication skills. After she completed the program, she continued as a volunteer and served on the LSS advisory board for two years.

Jeff lived at Renaissance from March to June 2002, then left to live in an apartment with a friend. He realized he wasn’t prepared for the realities of living on his own and returned to Renaissance, living there until January 2004.

During his second stay, Jeff held a full-time job setting up events at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, took part in “Oh No! 18” group meetings and attended classes to enable him to receive his General Educational Development diploma. He was able to save $1,100, which he used for a deposit to rent an apartment and to buy furniture and a stereo system.

Without help from LSS, Jeff said he probably would still be sleeping on the couches of friends. “I’d have no GED, no ambition,” he said. Patty said she probably would be living with her aunt or her mother — “whoever had room.”

Jeff completed studies at Lake Superior College, helped him get a job at United Health Care as a health claims analyst. Patty works in SMDC’s child-care center and hopes to complete an associate’s degree at Lake Superior College.

Angie Skogstad, program manager of “Oh No! 18,” said it’s not uncommon for young people who meet in LSS programs to date, but it’s rare to have a couple get married.

Skogstad has known Patty since she was 15 years old and met Jeff when he was 17. She has watched them grow up and mature. “They’re like my kids,” she said.

When they became a couple, Skogstad wondered how it would work out because Jeff is mellow and laid back, while Patty can be intense and serious. “But it works,” she said. “They have a give and take.”

Skogstad is proud of the life Jeff and Patty have formed together and is happy for them. In working with youths through the LSS program, she doesn’t always get to see the sort of continued progress that Jeff and Patty have made because sometimes people move away and she doesn’t hear from them.

Kevin Mullen, supervisor and case manager at Renaissance, has known Jeff for about six years and has gotten to know Patty through her relationship with Jeff. While programs can provide direction and support, they also take motivation by the individual, he said.

“With Patty and Jeff I see two people determined to make positive changes,” he said. “Now they’re a success in many ways.”

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