Journey to a healthy life path after incarceration
June 14, 2016
HOUSTON — Hour by hour, day by day, the lives of women recently released from incarceration are being saved, one step at a time, as they journey toward a healthier life path with the help of Angela House.
A ministry of the Archdiocese, Angela House’s mission is to successfully transition women back into society after they are released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison and state jail system, and county jails. The ministry’s transition success rate is more than three times higher than the national average; of the approximate 40 women served annually at Angela House, 76 percent successfully transition back into society, compared to the national average of only 20 percent. One may wonder what Angela House is doing that is making such a positive impact.
“We believe in a holistic approach to each resident’s unique needs and we make every effort to individualize services whenever possible,” said Sister Maureen O’Connell, OP, founder and executive director of Angela House. “Our philosophy is to establish a community of women who respect themselves and each other, and who are committed to working for their own empowerment as well as the empowerment of their families and each other.”
Before Angela House was established in 2002, the Galveston-Houston area had very few resources available to prevent these women from becoming reoffenders. Core programs and services at Angela House include the following: assisting residents with access to medical, dental and mental health services; individual and group therapy; creative arts groups; faith-based support groups; 12-step recovery meetings; job readiness training; financial management; and exercise and healthy living skills.
Angela House is one of 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), which enables the ministry to continue offering programs and services that have made a difference in the lives of over 322 women since its inception 14 years ago. Participation at Angela House continues to be in high demand for those recently released from prisons and jails within the Galveston-Houston area boundaries.
Sister O’Connell said thanks to DSF funding, Angela House is able to continue the necessary repairs and renovations required to maintain a 50-plus year-old building with a solid foundation, but an aging, somewhat neglected, infrastructure.
“In the two years that we have been in our new location, with more space for programming, we have been able to greatly expand and enhance the services we provide, but it comes at a cost,” said Sister O’Connell. “That being said, we also need to examine the cost to the human person and to society as a whole, when women are released from incarceration without any tools or information to assist them in making better life choices. Our goal here at Angela House is to provide that safe environment and access to the information our women so desperately need to make the changes they know are necessary.”
Kim Kehoe, a volunteer at Angela House since 2003, leads a Centering Prayer group on Sunday evenings with other volunteers and deacons. He believes the programs, services and environment at Angela House make the difference.
“Most important is the healthy, positive climate at Angela House, which greatly influences how these ladies participate and benefit from the program,” said Kehoe. “As one of my prayer group participants said so well, ‘Living at Angela House is the first time in my life that I haven’t had to watch my back.’”
Kehoe believes Angela House’s staff, volunteers and peers going through the program with them, do “have the back” of these women, many of whom grew up in unstable, abusive homes and have a history of failed relationships. Being part of a safe community that inspires love, trust, faith and belongingness may be new to them. A strict set of rules for conduct, or what Kehoe describes as “tough love,” also are put into place to help these women learn new behaviors and life skills, allowing them to take responsibility for their own healing and recovery.
Another part of the healing process is the amount of quality time the women get to spend with their family members. Once in the program, they are reunited with their families on the weekends at Angela House, and may earn special privileges to have visitation time back in their homes. Kehoe believes these women experience God’s mercy when they are accepted by families that still love and accept them unconditionally, regardless of their past mistakes.
“Mercy is absolutely at the heart of what Angela House is about; getting the women well enough to feel like decent human beings, and accepted back by their families and society,” Kehoe said. “Through the Centering Prayer Group I lead, creating space where the Spirit can touch their hearts and minds happens in the context of community through support, encouragement and, at times, that tough love, which the ladies give each other. Any one of them may be able to fool me and others, but they can’t fool each other.”
Kehoe believes as one Church, parishioners in the Archdiocese come together through the DSF to support ministries like Angela House.
“One or two parishes cannot do it by themselves, and DSF prompts us to expand our vision so we think of ourselves as members of the bigger Church,” Kehoe said. “I hope the people who read this article will appreciate the impact of their support. Sometimes you feel your contribution is just a drop in a bucket, but DSF does make a big difference, which is proof in the 76 percent of women who get themselves on a healthy life path at Angela House.”
Kehoe said that he, Sister Annette Dworsky, OP, Deacon Larry Hernandez or Deacon Sam Mancuso will lead the Centering Prayer Group on Sunday evenings. They discuss how they are personally impacted by their involvement.
“Each session consists of a short period of prayer in which we let go of the various thoughts that fill our minds and we listen for the Lord prompting us,” Kehoe said. “Then each of us talks about what is happening in our lives this week, sometimes sharing joy at staying clean and getting along with each other, and sometimes about events or people who irritate or upset us. The idea is that God speaks to us in the events of everyday living; we then conclude with the Our Father as we pray for each other and the people in our lives.”
Kehoe said these he and the volunteers are constantly uplifted and energized by the faith, hope and love of the women in the prayer group.
“It’s truly amazing to witness those who overcome serious issues through sheer will and perseverance, including severe drug and alcohol addictions,” said Kehoe. “It’s a good day when they are finally reunited and welcomed back home to live with their families again.”
Sister O’Connell believes that because today’s culture is not very supportive of women who end up in the criminal justice system, ministries like Angela House are critical.
“Here at Angela House, our goal is to help women take responsibility for past behavior while working to provide them with the tools they need to make a healthy and positive return to the community,” she said. “Volunteers like the Centering Prayer Group and the many others who lead the writing and bible study groups, teach photography, yoga, hip hop and healthy cooking, help with wardrobe choices and provide therapy and health classes, are the heart and soul of our program. These are the men and women who offer the face of mercy to women who have rarely experienced mercy.”
For more information about Angela House, visit www.angelahouse.com.