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December 7, 2010 Published in 2010 In Review, Non-Profits, Top Stories

Guest House: Choosing To Change

By Carla Branch

The house at 1 E. Luray Avenue looks like any other well-kept home in Del Ray – and it is just that – for ten previously incarcerated women who have made a decision to change their lives.

Terry (L) & Trish (R) at Alexandria's Guest House. (Photo: Artis Mooney)

Trish graduated from Guest House three years ago and is back. “I graduated and moved back to Harrisonburg where I am from, and things were going well until not long ago,” she said. “I held a job in home healthcare and was earning really good money. Then, I got involved in a relationship that wasn’t good for me and started using drugs again. I called Miss Emma and Miss Kari at Guest House and asked if I could come back because I needed the structure to get my life back on track. They said yes, and I’ve been here for nine days.”

Trish already has a full-time job and is starting to plan for what happens after Guest House. “I’m not going back to Harrisonburg. That was part of my problem. I like working in healthcare and want to continue that. For now, I like being here and getting the support I need from the staff and the women here,” Trish said.

Guest House was founded in the 1970s by federal parolee Betty McConkey, who saw the program through leasing the house and, in 1981, with the help of The Old Presbyterian Meetinghouse and the City of Alexandria, purchasing it. In 2004, the house was renovated thanks to the contribution of $300,000 in in-kind and monetary support. Ten women live in the house at any given time and receive 24-hour support from the staff.

“If we had three houses we could fill them immediately,” said Kari Galloway, the executive director of Guest House. “We are the only facility of this kind in Northern Virginia and there is a much greater need than we can fulfill.

“We accept only nonviolent offenders, most of whom have significant substance abuse and other mental health issues. All of our residents get jobs so that they can save money to live on their own when they graduate from our residential program in four months.

“Our nonresidential program allows us to maintain contact with the residents for an additional six to nine months. During that time, we maintain weekly contact with them and provide case management services,” Galloway said.

Kari Galloway, executive director of the Guest House. (Photo: Artis Mooney)

The residents at Guest House earn privileges gradually, beginning with a four-hour pass, leading up to a weekend pass. “When a resident returns from a pass, they undergo drug testing, and we randomly drug test while they live here,” Galloway said. “Many of these women have abused drugs and/or alcohol for many years, so we expect relapses. While it is hard to track the exact recidivism rate for our residents, we have a 94-percent graduation rate from our residential program and a 75-percent graduation rate from our after-care program.”

Terry came to Guest House last Thursday. “I am so glad to be here. I learned about this program from my public defender, who is my angel. I sent in my application and was accepted, and I feel blessed to be here,” she said.

Terry is 40 and has seven children, ranging in age from 26 to 14. “I have used drugs for more than 20 years and spent five years in prison. Even though I got out in 2004, I have spent every Christmas since then incarcerated for violating my probation.

“They told me that if I went to a 30-day treatment program, I could come here. I did and I’m here, and I’m going to change my life.

“I stay in touch with all of my kids, who are mostly all grown. My twins live with my mother in Newport News, and I want to change my life for me and for them,” Terry said.

The number of women in the prison system has grown by almost 800% in the past 3 decades. Virginia Department of Corrections spends over $24,000 per year per prisoner. Guest House costs the DOC an average of $4,800 per person for a 4-month stay.

“Our residents hear about us from women who have gone through the program, from counselors that they meet while they are incarcerated, from their attorneys, and from our outreach,” Galloway said. “Many of our residents come to us with serious mental health issues as well as substance abuse.

“The local jails are doing a much better job with pre-release planning, but things still need to improve. Sometimes we get residents who are released without their medication, and then it takes us a significant amount of time to set up appointments for them with mental health services. It is incredibly difficult to work with someone who is without their psychotropic medication, and that’s not their fault,” Galloway said.

Tanika is 34 years old and has a 15-year-old daughter. “I spent time in prison, and I finally decided that it was time to change my life,” she said. “I have a part-time job as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, and I am excited about starting that this week.

Tanika at Guest House. (Photo: Artis Mooney)

“Here at Guest House, everyone helps everyone else. That’s important,” Tanika said.

Cathryn’s story is similar. “I’m 50 years old and have had a substance abuse problems for a long time,” she said. “I’m from Newport News but don’t want to ever go back, because that’s part of my problem.

“Right now, I’m working full-time at the Salvation Army, sorting clothes and answering the phone. I love animals and would like to maybe go to school to become a veterinary assistant,” Cathryn said.

Guest House has an annual budget of around $400,000. “We rely on donations to provide all of our services,” Galloway said. “The Old Presbyterian Meetinghouse and Westminster Presbyterian Church are incredibly generous. Grace Episcopal Church built us an ADA ramp last summer, and that has been very helpful.

“We need money, of course, but also new underwear, regular size bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and other toilet items that our residents can use. We also need very specific volunteers right now, to tutor residents who are preparing for their GED,” Galloway said.

Edith is an alum of the Guest House who comes back to volunteer with current residents. (Photo: Artis Mooney)

One of those volunteers is a Guest House alum. Edith is 61 years old and, due to a disability, lives in an independent living facility. She speaks to groups about her experience at Guest House and comes to the house to provide support for current residents.

“I used drugs for more than 40 years and spent nine-and-a-half years in prison,” Edith said. “I have been on the street and clean and sober for three years because Guest House helped me change my life.”

Edith makes jewelry and other handicrafts and sells them at different places around Alexandria. “I love doing this work and want to continue doing it. It’s a hobby but is earning some money, too,” Edith said.