Sometimes a handshake is returned with a hug. Not always, but sometimes.
This was my experience walking into Friends of Guest House–one of our Grantee Partners–for the first time this past weekend. When the director introduced me to a young woman–a fifth grader who was there visiting her mom–my outstretched hand was summarily discarded in favor of a hug.
This greeting of unconditional acceptance was symbolic of the work of Friends of Guest House, a transitional house that empowers former female prisoners in Alexandria and Arlington to kick addictions and secure employment.
Women apply to the program from prison, where they write an autobiography about themselves and request admittance into the program upon their release. In some cases, women are admitted to the guest house in lieu of jail time.
The first phase of the program is a stay at the house to help the women get on their feet–to get the counseling they need to avoid returning to previous behaviors, secure jobs and save the money necessary to start a new life. The women then leave the house and move into the after-care program, where they remain under the care of the guest house, receiving follow-up visits, group counseling sessions and other supports to ensure that they stay on the pathway to achieving their goals and ambitions.
This weekend, regardless of where they were on this pathway, it was clear that the 11 graduates of the after-care program were leaving completely transformed.
“The women look totally different. I didn’t recognize them. Look at you, after the work is done. All those smiles. Look at you,” said one of their counselors who had known them as prisoners, and then as women doing the hard work of recovery and rebuilding.
Every speaker echoes this sentiment. No one seems to be able to believe their eyes. Are these the same women they had known before?
But the transformation isn’t only in their faces.
As an alumni of the program explained, Friends of Guest House provided a turning point in her life. “It’s an honor to be invited here today,” she said, “because before the only message I received was ‘get out, stay out.”
This was at the height of her addiction to cocaine, when she was homeless and hopeless, and had had her children taken from her.
Until she wrote a 20 page autobiography and was accepted by Friends of Guest House, she says.
Today, she has her children back, has had a job for three years, is in school studying to be a dental assistant and, in October, she and her children will be moving into their own place.
“My name will be on something else other than a warrant!” she said proudly.
A board member explained that she hears the transformation in the women through their speech. First, no one talks, she said, while they’re getting the lay of the land. Then, she hears a lot of “I” statements. Then “we” statements. Then it’s, “I’m gonna try, I’m going to do…”
This, she says, is when she knows the transformation is complete, and it’s a process she believes in. She serves on the board even though she lives in Maryland. “I come across the Wilson Bridge to help at Friends of Guest House,” she said, “because I believe in the power of women. I believe in the spirit of women.”
Involvement like hers is crucial, explains Friends of Guest House’s director, Kari Galloway. “It truly takes a whole community to do this work,” she said, and it is done with the collective hope that the women would continue to fulfill their goals, by moving from renters to homeowners, going from employees to employers (one graduate already has!) and giving to others.
This seems to be the final stage of transformation expected, of going from receiver to giver. From their counselor came the words, “What was freely given to you—give back. Help those behind you. We need your help. Some people come in and don’t believe us. We need them to see you. We need you to talk to them. We need them to see your experience, strength and hope.”
The graduates were rich with all three.
As they shared pieces of their stories–including months of hard-won sobriety, the establishment of a successful family business and even the relocation of the graduation ceremony to city hall–it was clear that their lives had been transformed through the second chance they received at Friends of Guest House.
And that by writing down their stories to ask for a new beginning in their lives, they wrote their ways to an exciting, hopeful new ending as well.
It does take a community to do this work, which is why The Women’s Foundation supports Friends of Guest House and other nonprofits throughout the Washington metropolitan region investing in women and girls. Join us in supporting work that transforms women’s lives. Get connected at our 2007 Leadership Luncheon. We’d love to see you there.