Women seeking hope and reform offered a positive destination
“I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming.
I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom.
I was a stranger in a strange land . . . ”
— Harriet Tubman
All too often, women in Western North Carolina who have done time for making a mistake in life find that they have no place to go upon their release from jail. For these women, who live in an age where jobs are scarce and drugs are plentiful, the prospect of freedom can be nightmarish.
Luckily there is now a positive destination for such women in WNC.
Three years in the making, the Clean Slate Transitional Housing facility in Sylva represents a dream come true for local leaders and the women they serve. Born out of the concerns of women who serve as chaplains at the Jackson County Jail, the program addresses the issues faced by many women released from the custody of jail, prison or other institutions who have no safe place to begin the work of rebuilding their lives.
Clean Slate co-chairs Alice Mason and Marsha Crites lead a group of volunteers representing regional nonprofits, educational and governmental organizations, as well as local church and business leaders called the Clean Slate Coalition.
“It broke our hearts to see the women we serve in jail leaving with a commitment to turn their lives around but with no alternatives but to return to the unsafe and often drug infested homes from which they came,” says Rev. Alice Mason, who serves as a chaplain and deacon with St. David’s Episcopal Church in Cullowhee. “In so many cases, those women were soon back in jail with nowhere to turn.”
“We have been very blessed with generous donations from individuals, businesses, local churches and the Human Hope and Hurt fund of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina to help us start and maintain this important facility,” Mason continued. “This is a house of second chances.”
The house may be located in Jackson County, but it serves women throughout WNC outside of Buncombe County. Five women between the ages of 22 and 60 are currently calling the Clean Slate facility their home, after being released from their respective detention centers — including one resident from Cherokee County and one from Macon County. The facility, which opened last November, can currently house nine people.
In the coming years, Mason said that the Coalition may seek to broaden its coverage and open new facilities in the region. “We would eventually like to expand to communities like Macon County,” she said. “There is need in the entire region. We will probably be filled by this fall and we will have people waiting in line once we are.” Mason, who has been an ordained minister since 1985, added that the Coalition is still in the midst of refining its operating process.
The residents must live and work in the program for one year. Some of the residents are recently released from regional drug treatment facilities and others from jail or prison.
Strict rules and close participation by the board and related committees offer the women a sense of security while they find their way to a new life. Residents are given a curfew, must perform volunteer work and house-chores, seek employment and continue education. “The main criteria is that the woman has to be motivated and take the time to get back on her feet,” said Mason.
Marsha Crites, a chaplain at the local jail from Cullowhee United Methodist Church, also teaches classes for men at the Haywood Correctional Center for Haywood Community College. “We know what works to prevent recidivism among the incarcerated population,” she says. “A safe and supportive living environment, educational and enrichment opportunities, as well as physical and mental health counseling and treatment are the keys to success.”
Regardless of the rehabilitative measures the Clean Slate program implements, much of the clients’ success comes from within. “The women here are very willing to do something with their lives, and that is the type of residents we are looking for,” said one facility manager, who lives in the home part-time to oversee the residents and maintain a positive environment. “All of us are pretty productive. We put recovery first … It is a learning experience for me and for these fabulous women.”
While the facility is supported by a number of regional churches, the program is not religious in orientation. The program leaders do however believe that women who develop a strong spiritual connection are more likely to succeed in life, and they encourage participation in local 12-Step programs and involvement in the individual’s church of choice.
The Jordan Institute at UNC Chapel Hill has documented how incarcerated women can move from victimization and rage to self-empowerment and reflection by writing and performing skits about their lives. With that understanding, Clean Slate offers new residents a small survival kit, hugs and a warm welcome note, as well as a journal to keep track of their progress. Each woman sets her own goals and works with fellow housemates and the Coalition to support her.
At this point, all the residents are employed and some attend classes at Southwestern Community College, which has not only offered hope to the residents, but to the program volunteers as well.
For one 44-year-old resident, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, the program has given her hope that she can live a meaningful life — even after she had attempted to commit suicide twice in recent years. “Clean Slate is helping me re-establish my life and to become a functional member of society,” she said, after having been in the program for nearly a month. “It is a very humbling experience to come back into the world.”
The resident said that after some adjustment, the program is not difficult, but remains challenging. “We do have to deal with everyday life and in the beginning there is a sense of ‘fight or flight’, but otherwise the program is very rewarding and inspiring ... I hold this program in very high regard.”
For those women who may find themselves in a hopeless situation, Mason got down to brass tacks.
“We all have a reason to be on this earth and we all need to find that reason,” said Mason. “We all make mistakes and we all need help on our journey. We need help from a higher power and the people that are here for us.”
Clean Slate still in need
When the facility was founded, it was granted seed money from the WNC Episcopal Diocese.
It currently costs approximately $25,000 for the house to operate annually, and is nearly all furnished due to the help and generosity of local donors. However, the Coalition is still seeking help from individuals, churches, and organizations with the following:
— A single bed and mattress
— Bedside tables and chests of drawers Supplies:
— Paper goods like toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels
— Computer print paper and ink cartridges
— Wholesome movies on CD
— Eco friendly cleaning products Mature women volunteers needed:
— Serve as mentors for individual resident
— Stay at the house offering stable companionship and support for a total of 20 hours a week
— Teach cooking, art, gardening, or exercise classes for women
— Transport women to meetings, appointments, and church especially after the hours that Jacksontransit runs
Maintenance volunteers needed:
— Gardeners and handymen and women to help keep the house and grounds in good repair. Volunteers at the house will participate in a short training program to help prepare them for their work.
Donations to the Clean Slate Coalition are fully tax deductible, and we welcome gifts as well as help hosting fundraising events for this good cause.
Members of the Clean Slate Coalition Board in addition to Mason and Crites are Deloise Anderson, retired police chief; Katie Crisp, New Choices Coordinator with REACH of Jackson County; Kristi Case, Housing Coordinator, Southern Region for Smoky Mountain Center; Priscilla Wodehouse, Episcopal Deacon in training with Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Cashiers; Marge R. Hall, Community Based Specialist for Smoky Mountain Center; Nancie Wilson, Psychology Instructor, Southwestern Community College; Rita Gregory, Basic Skills Retention Specialist, Southwestern Community College; Stephanie Almeida, Director of Prevention Rocks in Franklin; and Terri Sanger, More at Four Director for the Region A Partnership for Children.
Other members of the Coalition not on the governing board include Cathy Stillwell-Gibson of Whittier, Curtis Wood of Cullowhee, Gail Cooper of Whittier, Madge Ramey of Cashiers, Muff Lyons of Cullowhee, Ray and Ruth Siminski of Cashiers, Sue Ellen Bridgers of Sylva, Sarah Carter with Western Carolina University, Wanda Mills of Sylva, Ayer Gresham a student at Western Carolina University, and James Felton with Western Carolina University.
For more information about how you or your organization can join in this important work, contact Marsha Crites at (828)586-2726 or Alice Mason at (828)586-3096.