The Alexandria-based nonprofit provides structure, supervision, support and assistance to women who want to break the cycle of incarceration.
By Jane Hess Collins
Her abuse by an alcoholic father started when she was only five years old. Today, at age 27, Rhonda is mother to three children and has been in and out of jail for three years for fighting, stealing and probation violation. After 22 years of pain, she’s ready to turn her life around.
Facecd with hardship at every turn, Rhonda couldn’t control the rage inside her. In foster care by age 14, she was expelled from high school two weeks before graduation. Jailed for assault and battery off and on, she started smoking crack cocaine, along with pot, in 2006. That year she was sent to Bethany Hall, a private, non-profit agency that provides long-term residential substance abuse treatment for women, rather than jail because she was pregnant with twins and the jail would not allow her to stay.
Raising twins alone in Bethany Hall was not easy, and ultimately Rhonda chose to return to prison and allowed her parents to raise her children. While in prison, she applied for, and was accepted into, Friends of Guest House to further her education and become a better role model for her children.
Founded over 35 years ago by a federal parolee, Friends of Guest House, a Catalogue for Philanthropy-approved nonprofit, has supported well over 1,000 ex-offenders (mostly for non-violent crimes) through counseling, job, educational and housing assistance and referrals to community resources.
A modest 1920s home with yellow vinyl siding, Guest House blends in perfectly with its surrounding Del Ray neighborhood, located just northwest of Alexandria’s Old Town. The secret to Guest House’s success is their tough love environment which, according to Executive Director Kari Galloway, holds women to a higher standard than what many of them have previously experienced. Megan, a recovering 23-year-old heroin and meth addict who was imprisoned for stealing, agrees. Guest House taught her that “I have to do it myself. They can’t hold my hand. I’m just gonna have to be strong,” she says.
Belinda, age 51, tried crack cocaine at age 44 and quickly lost control of her lfie. After several stints in prison for possession, she has lived at Guest House for 90 days and has decided to apply for an extension. Belinda praisies the positive attitudes of Guest House employees, saying, “They don’t put you down here. They pick you up and help you. They want you to succeed,” she explained. But positivity doesn’t imply lax goals- there are strict rules to follow to stay in the program. Belinda doesn’t mind. “I need the structure. I need to be held accountable,” she admitted.
Guest House is the only program of its kind in Northern Virginia, and the need for its services is overwhelming. Although the facility can house 10 women at a time, they receive approximately five applications per week and residents stay an average of four months, according to Galloway. The small staff of six relies on an army of volunteers who donate 1100 hours each quarter. These volunteers mentor the women and teach them everything from resume writing to yoga. They also sort through donations, garden, do home repair and any other job that presents itself.
Torrey, a recovering alcoholic who was incarcerated for 17 years calls Galloway her “gift.” Released from jail just over two years ago, Torrey could not find a transitional program that would accept her. Worse, she couldn’t find anyone who believed in her the way she believed in herself, until Galloway and Guest House accepted her application.
“I wouldn’t know where to go or what to do if it wasn’t for Kari,” said Torrey. She returned to T.C. Williams High School and received her high school diploma (“not a GED” she says proudly) last year at age 44, graduated from the DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program and stops by Guest House frequently to help out new residents like Heaven, a 19-year-old who’s already spent 11 months in jail.
Although Torrey left Guest House 18 months ago, the Aftercare program provides her, and other alumni with a support system of counseling, workshops and other services. “It’s a continual process of support here,” Torrey says. She volunteers with Food and Friends and the homeless, but her goal is to work with at-risk young girls. Her dream is to be a Big Sister, and she can apply once the waiting period after her probation expires.
Rhonda wants to give back too. She realized in prison that her life needed changing. “I’ve got to want more for my children, but I have to want more for myself first,” she realized. She plans to study advocacy or the ministry, and is confident that she can do it in the Guest House’s environment.
“I can achieve anything,” she says. It took 27 years for her to say that.
Jane Hess Collins is a retired Air Force colonel who writes to inspire people to contribute. She is also a public speaker, conducts workshops for residents to discover their most intrinsic way to serve, and has established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her for speaking engagements or workshops at www.getoutandgiveback.com.