Getting to The Other Side with The Help of an Academy

By Jill Carstens

Seth Heard takes a break to be photographed at work, where he is a crew lead for The Other Side Furniture Boutique, a nonprofit social enterprise near Federal and Speer boulevards. Photo by Jill Carstens

Seth Heard was at a crossroads. He had failed probation three times and was facing time in jail. Growing up with family issues and raised by his grandmother, his problems were about to go from bad to worse. 

But then Heard’s probation officer mentioned The Other Side Academy (TOSA). Suddenly the dusty filaments of long-buried goals and dreams began to resurface, along with hope.

And hope, along with the willingness to do some hard work, is all one really needs to be accepted into the academy, which is free.

Students of TOSA are housed in beautiful old Victorians in Capitol Hill. The newest students are responsible for upkeep as the older students mentor them while holding down jobs at one of TOSA’s enterprises: a moving company located in RiNo and the organization’s new consignment furniture boutique at 3125 Federal Blvd.

“You’re immediately part of a team when you enter the residence,” Heard said. 

The enterprises provide participants with work skills, such as retail expertise, showroom staging, inventory management, marketing, sales, bookkeeping and customer service. 

“They also learn the critical soft skills needed to stay employed,” TOSA Director Lola Strong said.

Heard is a crew lead at The Other Side Furniture Boutique, managing employee-students, scheduling deliveries and pick-ups, and updating the website, marketing and social media for the store as well as assisting customers. 

“Everyone here has a voice,” he said. “We have a meeting every morning where we talk about what needs to be done or review what we could do better.”

Heard said he stays very busy, “moving and shaking,” and that he enjoys interacting with people and all of the activity that the job offers.

When asked how students deal with criticism as they are learning skills, he said there is a lot of peer modeling from the staff who have all had similar struggles. Students engage in feedback meetings twice a week for two hours where they learn how to criticize constructively and, in turn, accept feedback with grace. 

“It was hard for me at first,” Heard added, “and I had a lot of anxiety about the feedback meetings, but then I got used to it and I learned how to use the feedback.” 

There’s a “great metaphor in running a gently used furniture boutique by people who are transforming their lives,” founder and board chair Joseph Grenny said.

“But the thing that will really move you is interacting with the students who will offer you five-star levels of customer service,” Grenny added.

TOSA originated in Salt Lake City and was invited to establish a home in Denver after former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Denver Mayor Michael Hancock visited the organization in 2016, hearing of its 79% success rate compared to other substance abuse recovery programs. 

Repeat offenders and addicts usually have limited choices: more jail time or 30- to 90-day programs that fail. TOSA requires its applicants enter the program with a solid intention for change and a commitment to at least the two-year residential and work program, and often an additional six-month re-entry transition time period. Otherwise students may stay employed at TOSA’s enterprises as long as they wish.

Tim Stay, TOSA’s CEO, said the average participant has been arrested over 25 times when they enter the program. TOSA places 100% of students into full-time jobs. The organization does not receive much in the way of grant funding or donations. 

“Our social enterprises generate millions of dollars that support the program,” Stay said. 

Founded on 70 years of research, TOSA’s residential, work-based program utilizes a model of collaboration and teamwork rather than therapy. All of TOSA’s staff are former offenders. For Heard, this translates into what he described as a “no-[BS] way” to just start doing the work, but with a newfound sense of purpose.

For Heard, the academy has been a life-changer.

“Something magical happens when you work hard on yourself and healing begins, and then you get to help others and immediately see progress. It is very fulfilling. I like myself now and I am excited to work on my goals,” Heard said, adding that he wants to go to college as soon as he finishes his time with TOSA.
More: A 501(c)(3), TOSA has been self-sufficient since 2019 and houses over 70 students in Denver. It is currently renovating another historic house for future residents. Learn more at www.theothersideacademy.com.

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