Sunday, June 7, 2009

New Life for Women - Feature

I won't say much about this one, except that New Life for Women is one of the worthiest causes I've ever seen. It was brought to my attention by my friend and neighbor, Debbie Parks, who introduced me to the people who run it. Debbie graduated from New Life several years ago, but not before the damage was done. She had cirrhosis, which turned to cancer, which killed her last year. But she was clean and sober from the time she left New Life until the end. They're not just good people; they're the best. Miss you, Debbie.

Planet Weekly originally published this with all the women's real names, but enough time has passed, and I think it likely that some of them may not want their names bandied about on the Interwebs. As such, I've changed their names - out of respect for who they are, and where they may be at this time in their lives.

New Life for Women was founded in 1988 as a secondary treatment program for homeless, chemically dependent women. According to co-founder and current executive director Melanie Parks, women who complete primary treatment for chemical dependency – which consists of detoxification and about 30-45 days of treatment in places like Harbor House – typically return to their same places, people, and situations that caused the dependency, and are successful in maintaining long-term sobriety only about one time out of ten. Secondary treatment helps the women maintain sobriety at a much greater rate. Parks estimates that after 90 days’ treatment at her facility, or one like it, their chances rise to six out of ten, but she does admit:

“I don’t think there’s been any empirical data put together about that, but it would be interesting to know what the numbers are with the support systems established through an agency like this one.”

New Life for Women is a 20-bed facility in Jackson that specializes in helping women with a drive to free themselves from dependency on drugs and alcohol. It is only one of a couple of these kinds of programs specifically designed for women, and it is the only one in the metro area that is not part of an attached primary treatment center. Parks says that there are probably four times as many beds available to men as there are to women in the Jackson area.

“Alcoholics Anonymous numbers say that 50 percent of all alcoholics are women,” she said. “But here in the South, we don’t want to see our mama, our sister, our aunt, or our niece be labeled as an alcoholic or an addict.” She says that insistence on believing that women aren’t addicts is complicated further.

“Women take longer to get addicted and they take longer to get sober. It’s a physiological fact. It takes seven and a half to eight months for the brain to be chemically free from the last time an addict takes any mood-altering substance. And women have more baggage. We have abortions, rapes, molestation, and incest. Women often fall back on what they know and that’s not always healthy. We give them a place to learn new skills.”

Women who stay at New Life get a job during the day and stay in the controlled environment at night, taking part in individual and group therapy, learning coping and living skills like budgeting, taking part in spirituality groups, and earning their GEDs, if they need it. Many of the women have lost their children to DHS or to other family members, and courses are also given on parenting.

“Women are the hidden homeless,” said Parks. “If you can clean or babysit or take care of chores, people will put up with you for a period of time. They’ll put up with your disease until you start stealing from them, lying to them, and then they’re through with you.” To help keep them off the street, or from staying with someone who may prove destructive, New Life offers not only the 90 days at the main facility, but also a chance to live in a structured, more independent setting for a year or more.

“We have transitional apartments for the graduates through a HUD grant,” she said. “Once they complete their 90 days, they are eligible to go into the HUD program. This gives them time to get a job, get settled, and let the fog begin to lift.” Women in the HUD program have an apartment with a roommate. They have to save 30% of their gross income and pay their utilities. The grant pays their rent, buys furniture, and ultimately lets them get on their feet financially. They continue to receive aftercare at the center and have a strong support network. Parks estimates that women who go this far increase their chances of success to eight out of ten.

Currently, [Janice Bruer] is one of eight women taking part in this program. [Bruer] left an abusive marriage and joined AA several years ago. She relapsed, starting drinking again, and ended up in a second destructive marriage. When that one ended, she found herself in a series of bad relationships and was jailed seven times in one year. She says she drank dozens of beers every day.

“My old AA sponsor worked for the Department of Mental Health,” she said. “She called me and told me to go to a meeting that night. I told her I was drunk and not coming. She told me something had come across her desk and she needed me to see if I wanted to do it. I went to the meeting and she had information on New Life. I didn’t go through treatment; I’d done that before. But I sobered up and showed them that the alcohol was out of my system. Ten days after that phone call, I came here.” [Bruer] has been sober for the 8½ months since, went through the 90-day program, and joined the HUD program. She had been a homeless, jobless alcoholic for years, but now:

“I’ve got a job at a hotel. I’m in college full-time and learning to be a hotel manager. Sometimes on the weekends, I manage the one where I work. I’m getting experience, I’ve had my driver’s license reinstated, and I’ve got a car. All these things have happened since I’ve been here.” When asked, [Bruer], who says she once was addicted to “high drama,” insists that she is not yet ready to leave the support of New Life.

“I’ve got another eight months to go. I need the time to stay stable. I hope I’ll be ready; I’m doing everything I can to get ready. This is all part of the process to me.”

[Sara Mitchell] came to New Life in 1989 following 60 days in Harbor House. She ran with a motorcycle club, was an alcoholic and an IV crystal meth user. She had two small children; her mother and sister were raising them. She participated in the 90-day program.

“I needed to get out there and take care of my children,” [Mitchell] said. “I had acquired a job and I was ready to go. I’ve gone back to college. I’m a paralegal; I work for a law firm downtown. I’ve worked there for five years and I’ve been sober from October 1989 until today.” [Mitchell] credits Parks with helping her set long-term goals after she had left the 90-day program.

“You want to know what the program did for me? It took a practicing addict who dragged two little children through hell for years and turned her into a woman with a second chance.” [Mitchell] remains close to New Life, has remarried, and is raising two more young children. She is, quite honestly, happy.

“[Sarah] was one of the first women that went through our program,” Parks said. “We treated 450 women in the first five years I was involved.” Most of them have remained sober since. Parks says the idea for New Life came when she needed the program herself.

“I went through primary and secondary treatment in 1987. There was nothing for women in the city of Jackson – nothing. I stayed at a men’s facility with another gal. After I got out, I knew something had to happen regarding a women’s facility. That’s when New Life was birthed.”

Women at New Life receive a minimum of one hour individual counseling a week and six hours of group therapy every week. Alice Dorman is a counselor and runs a “hardcore” 12-step program.

“I got sober through AA on May 17, 1989,” she said. “I grew up in the ‘70s and tried all the other stuff, but alcohol is what got me. I really love being sober and that’s my deal. I want everyone to have it and I know they can.”

Althea Lewis is another counselor, one who says her strength lies in individual counseling:
“There is a uniqueness about every woman that comes through here, and she has other needs, and sometimes you have to get through self-esteem issues or behavioral issues. There is a reason why we act a certain way and when we can pinpoint why, we can work with that.”

“We’re finding that women and men are using chemicals now younger and younger,” said Parks. “We’ve treated more than one woman who has been a fetal alcohol syndrome baby, that their mother put booze in their thermos to keep them from going through the DTs at school. I’ve had at least two that I know of right now that their first time ever in their life being sober was in this building – ever.”

Unfortunately the work that New Life does has fallen into jeopardy.

“We were that close to going under,” Parks said, holding finger and thumb a quarter inch apart. “We were close to not being able to make payroll a couple of weeks ago, but Althea and Alice were both willing to keep working.” New Life is a United Way agency and they’re funded through the Department of Mental Health, but the money received is barely enough to pay salaries. In addition, the building has fallen into disrepair in the years since it opened, because of the agency’s lack of funds. In fact, the main house itself is currently unoccupied; due to the building’s state, the twenty beds are not used.

“St. Dominic Hospital had donated $20,000 to help rehab the building. They’re to be commended; they’re the only agency so far to have done that. I’ve also called [Hines County] Sheriff McMillin and he is sending his carpentry and painting crews the first of January to build us fire escapes and upgrade the building to where we think it’s habitable.” That’s not all that New Life needs. They need new carpet, improved plumbing, bedspreads, vacuum cleaners, some appliances, and even a new bathroom.

“We have a plan to do one large bathroom, but it would run about $6000. That would take care of it. St. James Episcopal Church is thinking about doing part of it.” Parks says they need many things, but she has one major Christmas wish.

“I’d like to see someone do an extreme makeover, like on TV. Rather than taking one unfortunate family, they can help 20 people at any given time, which works out to over 1000 people a year that they can help.” But New Life isn’t waiting for all the improvements to get back to work.

“We’ve got six beds ready to go and we’ve already got a waiting list. We get calls every day, from all over the state. They haven’t stopped. We fill a need.”

New Life for Women is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. Anyone wishing to donate money to the program, and anyone wishing to donate needed services for the building can reach them at 601-355-2195.

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