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Features - Posted December 29, 2017 9:09 a.m.
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Photo by Shannon Richardson

A Place to Start Over

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One set of clothes and a check for $50.

That’s all Stevi Larson had when she was released from prison.

She had nothing else. No family. No skills. No work history. No job prospects. No transportation. No home.

But Larson did have one prized possession: a Life Recovery Bible that had been sent to her by Sharing Hope Ministry in Amarillo. And because of that Bible and the relationship she’d built with the faith-based nonprofit, Larson also saw a light at the end of what had been a very dark tunnel.

That light was shining 300 miles away from where she was being detained in Bridgeport, Texas.

“I got on a bus out of prison and came to Amarillo for the first time in my life,” Larson says. She’s never been the same.

“You need an option,” Larson says about the uncertainty of being released from incarceration. “If you don’t have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to, you’re most likely going to end up back where you started.”

For her, that was a life of drug addiction. A native of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Larson had fallen in with the wrong crowd during her teenage years and spent nearly a decade as an addict. “I just got into trouble,” she says. “I was completely miserable.” Larson was 25 when her offenses landed her in the now-closed Bridgeport Pre-Parole Transfer facility. That’s where she finally got clean – and that’s where she discovered Sharing Hope and Patsy’s Place.

Based in Amarillo, Sharing Hope gives assistance to incarcerated women all over the United States, and then works to educate and rehabilitate female post-offenders after they’ve been released. The organization provides 12-step based “Life Recovery” Bibles, Bible study resources, and prayer correspondence for women serving time in prison or jail or in addiction rehab facilities. And each year, the organization accepts a limited number of women for a year-long residence at Patsy’s Place, a 12-bed transitional facility for women.

“I met a woman whose sister had been to Patsy’s Place,” Larson says about her time in the correctional facility. “I needed somewhere to go when I got out. I wrote to them and went through the application process and they accepted me.”

Fifteen months after being locked up, Larson finally was released and made her way to Patsy’s Place. That was more than two years ago. Today, Larson runs the Sharing Hope intern program and is the organization’s special projects coordinator. Sharing Hope also operates a thriving community garden and a brand-new Center for Advancement that provides education and other resources for women with similar stories as Larson.

“She’s a very talented and smart woman, and her passion makes her perfect for this job,” says April Riggs, executive director at Sharing Hope. “Her position here is super-important because of her background. So many people don’t really want to look at a woman who’s made that kind of mistake, but there’s a real ministry for that.”

That ministry is why Sharing Hope exists.

Overcoming Obstacles
Founded in 1999, the nondenominational Sharing Hope has given hundreds of thousands of Life Recovery Bibles to incarcerated women like Larson, at the rate of around 10,000 Bibles a year. On an annual basis, some two dozen women rotate in and out of Patsy’s Place. The recent opening of the organization’s Center for Advancement, located at 2308 SW Seventh Ave., allows Sharing Hope to expand its reach even further, offering resources like food staples, clothing, and hygiene items for women upon release. The organization is primarily run by volunteers and offers one-on-one counseling, mentoring and other educational opportunities (see sidebar).

Beyond Larson’s real-life example, Riggs explains why it’s so necessary to provide these types of resources for post-release women. A woman who is incarcerated for any length of time, says Riggs, “may have lost any job she had, any housing she had. She may be more in debit. She’s lost all her possessions. So when she comes out, she’s usually in a worse situation than when she went in. It’s really hard for women to get out of that cycle because there are so many obstacles.”

While incarcerated men and women face many of the same barriers – from an immediate lack of resources to lifelong struggles to find steady work – Riggs says it can be especially difficult for women suffering from addiction. “There was a criminal justice survey done a few years back that compared incarcerated men and women,” she says. “With women, almost all their incarceration came back to an addiction.” The survey found that most men admitted using drugs for recreational purposes. But women?
“In the same survey, women said it was to help them cope with either physical or emotional pain,” says Riggs.

For men, drugs were a distraction.

For women, drugs became a way to survive.

To understand this, Riggs says it’s important to consider what was happening in women’s lives before they made the poor decisions that landed them in jail, prison, or a recovery center. “They come in with a lack of education,” says Riggs. “Less than a third have completed 12th grade. They all have addiction issues. Last year, 94 percent of the women in our program had been victims of some kind of abuse. That’s a staggering thought.”

Moreover, nearly 9 out of 10 women had unresolved health issues when they arrived at Patsy’s Place. “A lot of that has to do with mental health,” says Riggs. “The things we see over and over are issues with depression and anxiety.”

These are the obstacles – depression, abuse, addiction, limited education – that await women even after a prison term is over. “I feel like I have ‘OFFENDER’ tattooed across my forehead,” one woman once told Riggs in an anonymous survey. That individual self-consciousness, whether imaginary or not, can pull back the reins on even the most confident of women.

Some women walk out of prison and don’t even know where they’re going to sleep that night. “That’s why we have Patsy’s Place,” she says. “You might be homeless and don’t have a place to go to. Maybe you’ve burned bridges with family, and the only friends that will give shelter are the ones doing drugs.” Despite having the chance to start over, a woman’s only options may be the very people and environment that led her to prison in the first place. “These women just need one year of safe shelter where they can focus on something other than just survival.”

Named for Patsy Britting, an early volunteer with Sharing Hope, Patsy’s Place offers women that positive environment and the tools to rebuild their life. Once there, Sharing Hope helps reintegrate women into the community. It requires them to attend church and recovery meetings on a regular basis and helps them find jobs. If necessary, it helps them save to buy a car, pay off debt, or prepare to live independently in an apartment. Volunteers offer financial education and mentoring. “We equip them to take care of their own issues so they can better handle any crisis situations that come up,” says Riggs.

A Surprising Gift

The fall opening of the Sharing Hope’s Center for Advancement allows the ministry to expand the educational aspects of Patsy’s Place, offering those resources to women outside the program. “Before, we had one classroom upstairs where the women [were mentored and educated], but it was hard for a woman who wasn’t living in Patsy’s Place to come get any of those resources,” says Riggs. “It was during the day. It wasn’t advertised. But now we have a building with a large classroom. We have a computer lab. We have a small food and clothing pantry just for post-offending women. We have a counseling office so our mentors and coaches can have privacy with women working on their goals or on a budget.”

She hopes that the Center for Advancement will provide just as positive an environment, where regardless of her past or appearance, a woman won’t “feel different or feel judged.”

The story behind the center’s opening provides a compelling reason to withhold that judgment – not just from women or recovering addicts, but from people of all walks of life. “That was one of the things that was pretty unbelievable,” says Riggs.

She launches into the story of how the Center came to exist.

The modern new building, located north of Sharing Hope’s community garden, is officially called the Lucille and Leo Caiafa, Jr. Center for Advancement. For years, the Sharing Hope headquarters has shared its building on Seventh Avenue with Stout Safe Storage. Leo Caiafa, a World War II veteran and retired mechanic who used to own Stockyard Garage, was a friend of the Stout family and a frequent visitor to the business.

“He would go every day,” says Riggs. “It was his routine. He was just a good ol’ guy.”

When Sharing Hope started construction on Patsy’s Place, Caiafa became curious about what exactly Sharing Hope did. “We got to know him pretty well as we were renovating the top floors. I think early on he didn’t like the change, but as we assured him about what we were doing, over time he got interested,” remembers Riggs.

One day, out of the blue, Caiafa offered to help fund part of the construction, providing enough money to complete one of the bedrooms in Patsy’s Place. The generosity surprised Riggs, but she was immensely grateful. She could tell it meant something to Caiafa. “He was very proud of what he was able to do for us and he let his family know about how he had been a part of our ministry,” she says. “After it was established and he saw the women coming in, I think he realized the impact of what his gift had done.”

Then, in early 2013, Leo Caiafa died at the age of 86. His surviving family members all lived far from Amarillo, including siblings in San Diego and Brooklyn. It took awhile for the legal process to run its course, but in 2016 Riggs was surprised – in more ways than one – to get notice that the retired mechanic had left behind a sizeable estate. “They told me he saved everything and made some very good investments,” she says.

Caiafa instructed his family to distribute most of that money to nonprofits. One of them was Sharing Hope. “His sister knew how much he had loved what he did for Patsy’s Place, and that’s why they decided to give a large portion of that [estate] to us,” Riggs says. “You would never have known he had that kind of money.”

That’s how Caiafa ended up giving $765,000 to an organization that helped women struggling to rebuild their lives after prison.

“This never happens,” Riggs says. “It was totally unexpected, but it came at a time when we were trying to figure out [what to do]. We didn’t have enough room. We couldn’t grow. They said, “if we give you this money, what would you do with it?”

The Lucille and Leo Caiafa, Jr. Center for Advancement is precisely what Sharing Hope did with the gift. “It was such an incredible blessing,” says Riggs. “Leo saw the need.”

If Sharing Hope exists at all, it’s because so many others have seen a need and stepped forward to help.
Including Stevi Larson.

Life Beyond Prison
“Recently we had a woman come to the center to get food and clothing,” says Larson on a windy, cold afternoon. “She had just gotten out of jail. She was telling me that she was an addict. I was able to share my story. I was able to say I’ve been there and done it and this is what I did.”

Larson suggested that the woman get plugged into a support group and surround herself with mentors and people who cared about her future. “That’s what helped me when I lived upstairs,” Larson says, indicating the second floor bedrooms of Patsy’s Place. “It wasn’t until I got to Patsy’s Place that I learned the person I was before prison was not who I have to be today. That’s not who I want to be today. There is life beyond prison and addiction.”

That life most definitely exists because of nonprofits like this one. It’s clear in stories like that of Stevi Larson. It’s available to women because of the hard work of people like April Riggs. It exists because of the surprising gifts of seemingly random residents like Leo Caiafa.
All of them, in their own way, are playing a life-changing role in women’s lives. All of them are Sharing Hope in hopeless situations.

Get Involved

“With a nonprofit, anything you can think of, we can use,” says April Riggs with a laugh. “All of our services are done by volunteers.” From the intensive programming for Patsy’s Place residents to the classes offered at the Center for Advancement, Sharing Hope is built on the backs of volunteers who visit local women in jail and generously share skills and knowledge. “We have volunteers who come and send Bibles out and write a note of encouragement. Our teachers are women in the community who have a background in whatever subject they’re teaching. We have mentors who are women just willing to meet one-on-one once a week to give encouragement to a woman who’s learning some new skills. We have financial coaches. We have women who open mail and come do data entry for us.”

One of the central volunteer opportunities at Sharing Hope is a group of women known as Patsy’s Pearls. These dedicated volunteers support the women in the program, from planning birthday and graduation parties to helping graduates furnish new apartments.

The organization is primarily supported by churches and individual donations, so financial donations are always welcome. “Since we are Christ-centered, we don’t receive any government funding,” says Riggs. “We always have a need for men and women to help with fundraising.”

To explore opportunities to volunteer or give, visit sharinghopeministry.org.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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