In January 2013, Kelly Villarreal and her husband, Justin Bell, were acclimating to their new life in Oregon. Villarreal had retired early from Santa Clara Unified School District and relocated to Redmond for Bell’s job with Cupertino Electric. As she pondered her next career move, tragedy struck. Bell suffered a heart attack on Jan. 6 and was pulled from life support five days later. Less than 24 hours after his death, Villarreal had an epiphany.
Using Bell’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism as her driving force, Villarreal would turn her personal hardship into hope and salvation for youth going through the same trials and tribulations Bell battled throughout his short life. Her mission was simple: help kids facing problems with addiction. In the two years since Bell’s death, Villarreal, armed with a superstar team of women including Pat Flot, Jennifer Dericco, Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley, Julie Eastburn and Sheila Morales, has formed Justin’s House, a non-profit dedicated to inspiring “youth to live beyond abuse and addiction.”
“[The morning after Bell’s death], I woke up and I knew that this was what I was going to do,” said Villarreal. “I was going to start a program and honor him, and work with kids who struggled as he did. We had a lot of conversations over the years about his struggle and his life and he used to talk about some different programs that he would go and try when he was younger. He was very defiant and nothing ever stuck but he did mention often that if he had had a place that was kind of a safe haven – someplace he could go when times got really tough at home or if he had been somewhere where he had gained some skills where he could have remained sober or knew how to deal with his friends – that maybe it would have been helpful. This kind of grew out of that idea.”
With her late husband’s wedding ring hanging from a silver heart necklace she wears, Villarreal finds her strength in his strife, and has lofty goals for the organization. Starting with the need of identifying youth who are heading down the path of addition, Justin’s House hopes to offer services ranging from tutoring and life skills, to temporary housing and a summer camp.
“The goal is to have the house and to be able to provide services,” said Villarreal. “To be able to provide a place that can help them become strong in their fight to remain sober and to provide these other experiences with them. And then ultimately to have some kind of revenue stream, maybe a café, which is where our background, mine and Justin’s background, really was – in restaurants – and I taught culinary for years. To eventually have a small café where kids can learn some skills and they can give back. I kind of see it as a revolving door where those kids come back and they help other kids and share their stories.”
While similar programs exist, Justin’s House plans to fill in gaps left by other organizations. “We don’t want to duplicate services but we often find that there’s this program and that program and they’re not connected,” said Kappeler-Hurley. “Maybe we’re the connection place. We don’t know. We do have a long-term plan and we also want to learn and kind of get those pieces that are most helpful for those kids and maybe work together.”
“This is really about giving them other options and building up their whole world,” said Villarreal. “It’s really focused on the kids … I just feel it’s so important to be able to help kids not get there. It’s a horrible way to live.”
Justin’s House is holding its inaugural fundraiser, or coming out party as Villarreal and Kappeler-Hurley describe it, on Wednesday, Mar. 25 at 6 p.m. at Fiorillo’s Restaurant, 638 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased through www.justinshouse.org or by calling 831-704-7161.