Gemeinschaft Home provides refuge in Harrisonburg for men rejoining society after incarceration, but that option hasn’t been available for women in the same situation. Now, they have new money for a women’s program, and they’ve been welcoming their first guests at a new house near downtown Harrisonburg. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.
Ashley Whitmer has battled addiction for most of her adult life.
ASHLEY WHITMER: I’ve been on drugs since I was 15 years old, and I’m 32 now. It’s done nothing but make my life very hectic and caused a lot of problems in my life.
Those problems came to a head in 2012.
WHITMER: I got on bath salts when I was 22 years old, and I weighed 79 pounds, and I got in a car accident in Dayton, I tried to run from the cops....
Whitmer is one of the first people to join Gemeinschaft’s new residential program for women. After years spent in and out of jail, and without custody of her now 11-year-old daughter, she’s determined to break the cycle.
WHITMER: I’m staying here, I’m staying sober, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to, so I’m proving to everybody that I can do it. And it feels really good, it has brought my confidence back to what it used to be.
She was in Gemeinschaft’s day reporting program, which offers counseling and support for both men and women as an alternative to incarceration. However, a long-term, overnight option for women had been absent in Harrisonburg.
SHARON RINGGOLD: Years and years ago, they had two homes for women, and then in 2008, the federal government cut funding for all sorts of programs, not just our programs.
Sharon Ringgold is Gemeinschaft Home’s Executive Director.
RINGGOLD: At the time, it forced Gemeinschaft to look at funding, because it was cut by two thirds. And so, they decided at that time they would close the two homes for women, as well as four homes for men.
The men’s house, located off Mt. Clinton Pike west of Harrisonburg, was the only one to survive those budget cuts. Gemeinschaft started the Day Reporting Center several years later, and within the first few months, the staff noticed that many of the women in the program needed a safer environment.
RINGGOLD: The first couple of months we had one or two women in the day reporting center. And then all of a sudden within six months or so we jumped to 21 women. And it was just like, wow - just listening to the stories of these women, that some were homeless, some were pregnant and homeless.
Michelle Roberts is the case manager for the women’s program. She has noticed that there are more women being incarcerated in the local jails.
MICHELLE ROBERTS: I’d say it’s been trending up just by what I see coming – the people coming into the Day Report program, the fact that Rockingham got full when it can hold a certain number of women, and that going over to Middle River [Regional Jail].
The staff spent the next few years were spent planning the program and searching for a house.
[South High Street traffic]
They found it last year in a two-story, early 20th century brick house on Old South High Street, known in the community as “The Dean House.”
RINGGOLD: When I walked into the house there, I just felt this presence, and I knew this would be the place for women to call home for right now.
[Front door opening]
After a successful fundraising campaign last year, they were able to move in. And in February, they welcomed their first few residents.
[Roberts giving a tour of the house]
ROBERTS: This is the community kitchen; we share it with others.
Offices and shared meeting spaces are downstairs…
ROBERTS: Now that you’ve seen the downstairs, lets head upstairs.
The women in the program live upstairs. Just like at the men’s house, they share rooms and all of the responsibilities that come with communal living, but also maintain a support system for each other.
ROBERTS: If you’re struggling, you have someone to call upon, and I tell them they can always reach out to me, but I can’t be it all for them, so I want them to be able to lean into each other.
They also have a scenic view of downtown Harrisonburg behind the house although, coincidentally, that includes the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.
ROBERTS: I’ve been joking that if any of them act up, I’m gonna bring them here, because the jail is directly across from us. That’s my scare tactic right there, sort of “scared straight.”
That hasn’t been a problem so far, and the women at Gemeinschaft hope to keep jail behind them, just as it is with the Dean House.
Ashley Whitmer, again.
WHITMER: Being in jail - you only live once, and I made a decision and I’m sticking by it 120% that I’m not going back to that place. I don’t wanna be that person anymore. I don’t wanna be known as the girl who wrecked her car running from the cops on bath salts, who never changed and didn’t get her daughter back.