Re-entry program aims to make a difference

ROCHESTER — La Quinta Williams has battled addictions to alcohol and marijuana throughout her life.

But it is the struggle with her primary addiction of shoplifting — which has led to 78 arrests as well as stints in jail — that rages on within her, Williams said during a June 19 interview at the St. Paul Street home that houses "Out of the Darkness."

But the new program, which began in April to offer re-entry services to women coming out of jail or substance-abuse treatment programs, is already making a difference for her, said Williams, 53.

While she initially resisted the help offered by program founder Sonia Rodríguez, the support she has received in her short time at the house has already had incredible results, Williams and Rodríguez concurred.

The two women were shopping recently and another customer dropped some cash. Williams picked it up and felt the old feelings of "finders, keepers" creeping back into her mind, she said.

Instead, she gave the money back.

"I’ve got a conscience now," Williams said. "Before that, I didn’t care."

"It brought me to tears," said Rodríguez who witnessed the interaction. "I thought, ‘Oh Lord, this is improvement.’"

Rodríguez said that she is proud of the progress made by Williams and the four other women living in the large house, which was formerly the St. Bridget Church rectory. Bethany House, the most recent occupant, has moved to a location on Joseph Avenue.

Hope Christian Fellowship in Charlotte purchased the property so that Rodríguez, a longtime member of the congregation, could run the residential re-entry program. After volunteering with the Judicial Process Commission, the Puerto Rico native began developing ministries — including a job-skills sewing program and faith-based substance-abuse counseling — to help women and men in need.

The commission — a volunteer group of educators, attorneys and clergy that advocates for social justice within the legal system — provides re-entry assistance for women coming out of jail. Seeing the need to help with that re-entry process is what led to the creation of "Out of the Darkness," Rodríguez added.

The commission referred Genevieve Perez to Rodríguez’s program following a petit larceny arrest. Perez said that she was stealing to support her drug habit.

"The best thing that could have happened to me is being in jail for 10 months," noted Perez, 43. "I haven’t taken anything that didn’t belong to me since I went to jail."

Perez said that her uphill battle with addiction also is a family struggle, as her eight siblings have engaged in some form of substance abuse. Two died because of their habits, she added.

Perez, who grew up in Brooklyn, said that she is clean now, and the support from Rodríguez and the other residents at the house is helping with her goal of staying that way.

"I’m learning to take care of myself … and there’s a lot of spirituality here," she said. "There’s a lot of support here. And I’m learning to abide by the rules. Before, I didn’t follow rules but that kept getting me into trouble. I’m learning to follow rules … and that is helping me a lot."

The program’s house rules include being home by 5 p.m., not relapsing into drug or alcohol use, agreeing to random drug and alcohol testing, and being enrolled in a support group, Rodríguez explained. Until 5 p.m., the women are free to attend their support groups, go to appointments or run errands, she added. When they return to the house, they have dinner together and spend the rest of the evening in Bible study or hearing guest speakers. They take turns with cooking and other housekeeping duties.

Rodríguez and her husband, Luis, oversee operations and maintain that daily schedule for the women. The rules pose a challenge for some, Rodríguez added, as she has had to ask two women to leave the house. But rules fit with the program’s goal of providing structure, support and spirituality, she noted.

"Everyone is different; this (work) isn’t easy," Rodríguez said. "They have to be responsible."

As the program also works on finding funding sources to add paid staff, Rodríguez said that she is fortunate to receive food donations from Samaritan Harvest and the Open Door Mission.

Samaritan Harvest, a local interdenominational food distribution group, was glad to help Rodríguez’s new program because she is filling a great need in the community, said Grant Wolfe, Samaritan Harvest’s founder.

"That outreach is important because there are not enough programs in the city to assist women in any shape or form whether they are coming out of prisons or they are homeless," Wolfe said. "Really, there are not enough beds for (these) women in the city."

The Monroe County Re-entry Task Force also provides resources for the approximately 2,500 men and women coming back into the community from jail or prison per year, according to www.cfcrochester.org/pg/reentry-task-force. The task force is a joint collaboration between the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, the Monroe County Executive’s office and Catholic Family Center.

CFC also offers a direct-services program called "Prodigal Sons and Daughters," which aims to keep people from returning to prison or substance abuse as Rodríguez’s program seeks to do. The CFC program has a recidivism rate of 11 percent.

Rodríguez said that the "Out of the Darkness" program also is seeing the fruits of its labor flourish, as the women have begun sharing their talents including poetry, public speaking and painting.

"I’m amazed at these women’s talents," she said.

Jacqueline Johnson, originally from Texas, said that she is grateful that God gave Rodríguez the vision to create this program. And it was a church friend who referred Johnson, 49, to Rodríguez, she added.

"I had lost my apartment and everything was in shambles," explained Johnson, who has been battling cocaine and crack addiction since she was a young teenager. "God put something in her (Rodriguez’s) head to give me a place to be and help me put my life in order."

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