eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

Alexandria nonprofit offers former prisoners a fresh start

In her early 20s, Terry Garrett had four children, a crack cocaine addiction and was often living on the streets of Alexandria, engaged in criminal activity to support her drug habit.

Now 11 years sober, she has her own home, a job and enjoys a close relationship with her three daughters and 13 grandchildren. (Her son was killed in 2013.) “I just refuse to go back to the lifestyle that I used to know—I refuse,” she says. “I have too much to lose today.”

In Their Own Words, a free public event co-sponsored by local philanthropy group Giving Circle of Hope and the Reston-Herndon branch of the American Association of University Women, will give formerly incarcerated women the chance to share their stories at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, at Refraction in Reston Town Center.

The featured speakers are alumni or current residents of Guest House, a temporary residence in Alexandria that offers services to recently incarcerated women as they transition back into their communities. Since 1974, the organization has assisted roughly 3,500 women, who arrive at Guest House from a local jail or prison after completing an application process.

Kari Galloway, executive director of Friends of Guest House, says the War on Drugs launched in the 1980s is partly to blame for the dramatic increase in nonviolent female offenders. She says those policy changes “put over 800 percent more women behind bars than ever before.” About 50 percent of federal prisoners and 15 percent of state prisoners were serving time in 2015 for drug violations, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In their applications for Guest House, many women write about the trauma they have experienced. “Nobody comes here who’s had a gentle, peaceful life. They just haven’t,” Galloways says. “And it’s important to talk about that and to get it out because for the first time, maybe in your entire life, you have an opportunity to do that.”

Garrett credits Galloway as inspiring her to finally commit to her recovery after years of being in and out of jail and prison. She recounts a Friday night when she resolved to leave Guest House, not long after arriving for the second time. That evening, as Garrett was about to walk out the front door, Galloway urged her to give it the weekend and reconsider.

“Sometime during the weekend, the god of my understanding stepped in,” Garrett says. “When Ms. Galloway came back that Monday morning, I had written a letter of apology to the staff and the residents, and I told her that I was scared because I didn’t know what was getting ready to happen. And I wanted to change my life … I’ve been on a roll ever since.”

The organization hit some roadblocks about 14 years ago, when it temporarily shut down due to mismanagement. But in 2005, after a major renovation spearheaded by board member Peter Lunt and supported by local organizations, Galloway joined the staff as executive director. Though she had little experience that directly translated to running Guest House, Galloway had worked in homelessness, domestic violence and mental health issues. “Life was good preparation for this,” she says.

Through case management, personal-development classes, parenting support and an aftercare program that extends personalized support to women once they have moved out of Guest House, the center aims to offer much more than just a place to stay. While it doesn’t provide substance-abuse treatment programs and has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, the administration will sometimes re-accept women once they have attended outpatient services. The organization has also accepted women for second or third residences. “Everybody learns at their own speed; that’s my theory,” Galloway says.

Fewer than 10 percent of women who complete the full program at Guest House re-offend, Galloway says, and adds that the national statistic for nonviolent offenders is 70 percent within two years.

Earlier this year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe invited Garrett—who wrote a personal essay in the Washington Post in 2016—and five other special guests to sit alongside First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe at his State of the Commonwealth address. Garrett is among the more than 97,000 former felons whose the governor has re-enfranchised since the start of his term. In his address, Gov. McAuliffe said, “Terry is with us tonight on behalf of so many Virginians who are proud to have a voice in their commonwealth’s future again.”

Garrett recalls personally thanking the governor at his residence after the address, telling him, “Where no one else would, you stood up and did something that nobody else would do.” Last November, Garrett voted for the first time.

The Virginia Department of Corrections provides much of the funding for Guest House as a community residential program, but the organization also receives donations from businesses, religious organizations and private donors. Galloway says that the churches and synagogue nearby have been very welcoming of the program, often lending event space.

Andreas Brumbaugh, who goes by Andie, has been at Guest House for about 2.5 months. As part of her recovery from years of crime and drug use, she recently chose to leave her husband of 16 years (also a user) and had her sister adopt her 2-year-old. “This time I knew that I had to let go of everything, even the clothes on my back,” she says.

For Brumbaugh, getting back on her feet is very much a day-by-day process, but she says she keeps her mind on kindness and hope. “We’ve all been through so much, and we’re all ashamed,” she says. “But it’s good to get up and be excited about a cup of coffee and be excited to say good morning to the girls and be excited to realize that I can do anything I want to do right now. It’s like being reborn.”

The Giving Circle has awarded grants to Friends of Guest House to support programming since 2008. Yet Giving Circle’s communication director Lydia Patrick points out that its educational programs go beyond mere funding. “We don’t just give money; we actually involve ourselves with our nonprofits,” she says.

One program initially funded by a Giving Circle grant is the Speakers Bureau, which enlists current and former residents to share their narratives with audiences from high school students to the state legislature.

In recent years, Garrett and other members of the Speakers Bureau have ventured to Richmond to advocate for issues such as domestic violence and criminal justice reform. “I think it’s a lot harder to vote something down once you’ve seen somebody whose life is directly affected by it,” Galloway says. “And it’s powerful for the women, for them to feel like they may not be helping themselves, but they are definitely helping somebody coming behind them.”

Brumbaugh offers advice for nonviolent offenders who are battling substance abuse. “I would tell them you’ve got to start loving yourself and thinking better of yourself, and to give yourself a chance at life,” she says. “And that it’s not hopeless—there’s millions of people out here with the same disease that we all suffer from.”

Each year, Friends of Guest House holds a graduation for women who have completed both the residential and aftercare programs, which typically takes one to two years. A member of the Alexandria Kiwanis Club who owns a jewelry store has donated a pair of pearl earrings to each graduate for the past several years.

“She comes and she talks about how pearls are precious, and they are formed by an irritation inside by a grain of sand inside of an oyster,” Galloway says. “The oyster secretes a lacquer around that irritation. And suddenly something that started out as an irritation becomes a thing of beauty.”


A fish called Madeline