Former resident, John Butler, Jr., returns to Gemeinschaft Home—this time as an employee.
The sound of his voice often precedes him, as residents and staff encounter John Butler, Jr., Gemeinschaft Home’s new Residence Life Coordinator, and its deep tone resonates all of the warmth and grace of the man himself. Whether he is leading a group session or having an impromptu conversation in the hallway, Butler embodies a gentle aura that is both authentic and powerful.
Butler began work in this position last June, but his journey at Gemeinschaft Home began almost thirteen years ago, when he arrived as a resident. “I came here from prison in 2003. I got here the day after Christmas. It was what I needed at the time, and that is why I am still here,” Butler explains, pointing to his experience in the program as the watershed moment in which he chose another path.
“I went to prison twice and had an active addiction for over thirty years. I got to the point where everything that I believed in was a lie,” he says. The major difference he observes in his perspective today is that “I believe in the impossible. The impossible in this situation being the idea that a prisoner can never return to mainstream society and live a positive and productive life.”
He is proof that the impossible is indeed possible, after all. He embodies a real and present example for residents in the program. He enacts a different way of being in the world, and has the ethos “to embrace others on the same road,” he says, because he has shared so much of their past experiences.
On prison life, Butler explains, “When you continuously have someone in control of the light switch and water valve and all movement, it produces a certain amount of stagnation. Prisoners don’t have to worry about anything, and when they get out of prison, they don’t know how to handle it.” He adds, “We need help a lot of times to take a look around and realize what we’re doing and the next thing we need to do.”
Butler argues that the strength of Gemeinschaft Home is in its capacity to provide residents with learning experiences and tools for living that enable them to adjust to life beyond incarceration. Part of that mission involves instilling an ethic of care for others and a sense of accountability for one’s own actions. “Having genuine concern and empathy was a big learning experience for me,” he says, reflecting on his time as a resident in the program.
Butler completed a six-month program in 2004, and, after settling in the local area, he never stayed too far away from Gemeinschaft Home. With expertise in maintenance work, Butler found employment and housing, joined a church, and established new friendships, but it seemed as though something was absent from his life. He explains that “I was good at my work, and I made good money, but it wasn’t who I am, because my heart wasn’t giving back. It’s in my heart to reach out to people to show them the way.”
Over the last decade, Butler gradually has become more involved in the organization, both on a volunteer and paid basis, and he has served on the board of directors. Butler has also become active in other community-based initiatives as well. For example, he is president of Virginia 21, a nonpartisan organization that raises awareness about voting issues and monitors ongoing discussions in congress, the general assembly, and among local delegates. Butler’s interest is significant and personally relevant, because as a convicted felon in the Commonwealth of Virginia, he lost his privilege to vote. The right can be restored for ex(offenders), but only through a complicated application and approval process. Butler was released more than thirteen years ago, but he has only recently been given back the right to vote.
Now in a full-time position Butler’s work for the organization involves a variety of roles, and, in part, involves communicating with representatives from the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) to determine whether referred applicants are eligible for the program and to facilitate the transition of new residents from prison to Gemeinschaft Home upon their release.
However, most of his job focuses on residents currently in the program, and his approach is the same with an individual one-on-one as it is in a larger group setting: “Let’s work our way through this together.” He advises residents to be realistic in their expectations and emphasizes that “we are not going to be who we want to be overnight.”
Butler strongly advocates for the creation of more re-entry/transition programs, and he challenges the common usage of the word “halfway house,” as it applies to Gemeinschaft Home, stressing, “Halfway house is not good enough. Half is not good enough. We need to have a successful completion of the transition for them to successfully go on with their lives.” Down the road, Butler hopes to become director at a sister or brother facility that is connected to Gemeinschaft Home.
As he now reflects on his past experiences, Butler stresses, “All I wanted was to be clean, sober, and able to make a difference—and that is what I did,” crediting Gemeinschaft Home for the opportunity to do so.
Brenda Leigh provides Gemeinschaft Home residents with family-style meals, made daily from scratch with fresh, high-quality ingredients.
The sweet and savory aromas of home cooking quickly envelope the senses of anyone who walks through the front doors of Gemeinschaft Home in the early afternoon. Dinner is served daily at 4PM, but the irresistible scents that reach into every corner of the house often lure residents to the dining area earlier. Even some of the administrative staff members, whose offices are located on the first floor of the house, admit to venturing back into the kitchen periodically in search of one fragrance or another swirling in the air.
Food manager, Brenda Leigh, established the practice of preparing fresh, home-cooked meals for residents, when she joined the Gemeinschaft Home staff just over three years ago. At first, Leigh took charge of the kitchen on a temporary basis, and she characterized her role at that time as just “helping out” the organization while they hired someone to fill the position. However, shortly thereafter, she was offered the job permanently, and the Gemeinschaft Home community has enjoyed the benefits of her culinary skill ever since.
Leigh, who is known affectionately among the residents as “Ms. B.”—not just because her first name begins with the letter B, but she is often seen “as busy as a bee around the kitchen,” according to one former resident—is not professionally trained in the culinary arts, but she brings a wealth of experience to her work at Gemeinschaft Home. Much of her skill comes from her past work in the food industry, the lessons she learned as a child in her grandmother’s kitchen, and the years she spent raising children and preparing family meals.
Because the residents’ work schedules differ greatly, and many are at their job locations during breakfast and lunchtime, Ms. B. prepares brown-bag meals for residents each day as well, and she maintains a well-stocked cupboard for residents (who cook for the house on the weekends) to prepare meals.
Ms. B.’s commitment to the wellbeing of the residents is most evident in her philosophy of soul food. To her, having access to good food is an integral part of the life recovery program at Gemeinschaft Home. The majority of residents arrive with at least one year of prison food behind them, and she argues that a little taste of home can help to ease some of the anxiety and stress that many individuals experience upon leaving prison.
Prior to her arrival three years ago, residents consumed meals prepared mostly from pre-packaged, processed, and frozen ingredients, but Ms. B. saw an opportunity to give residents tastier, more nutritious foods, including many of her own recipes as well as those shared by residents—“They teach me!” she proclaims proudly. Her reputation is well known among some prospective residents, who have heard about her home-cooked meals from their friends or acquaintances who have lived at Gemeinschaft Home.
Ms. B. stresses that good food is healing for the soul, and she points out that no matter what issue an individual resident may face, he knows that he will eat well today and every day he lives at Gemeinschaft Home. In addition to the daily meals, Ms. B. also prepares special dinners on major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, and Easter.
The gratitude from residents is readily apparent, according to Ms. B., who claims she often hears comments such as “This tastes just like my mom used to make!” or “This is the same way my grandmother made it!”
While she has made more money working in other positions, Ms. B. says that no other job has ever been as rewarding. The residents make her job worthwhile, and she is happy to contribute to their success in the program.
While she knows that residents have a long journey ahead of them, with a number of issues confronting them, she asks herself, “If I were in their shoes, how would I want to be treated?” The answer can be found in the main ingredient of her cooking—love—and she always dishes out an extra helping.
Gemeinschaft Home Launches New Program
In collaboration with the city of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Gemeinschaft Home now provides a new service—a Day Reporting Center (DRC)—that offers an alternative to incarceration in the local community.
Developed in response to ever-growing concerns about jail overpopulation and rates of recidivism, the program offers intensive supervision of certain individuals, often first-time offenders, while they remain in the community and can sustain employment, childcare, and other obligations.
For a brief period in the early 2000s, there was a Day Reporting Center in Harrisonburg, sponsored by the Virginia Department of Corrections, but the program was dissolved shortly after its creation, due to a lack of funding resources.
However, in August 2015, the city of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County issued a public call for proposals to establish a day reporting center in the local area. Gemeinschaft Home answered, developing a proposal to establish such a program, and soon after began contract negotiations with local government officials to hammer out the details.
The Day Reporting Center officially opened in January of this year, and, while separate from the existing residential program at Gemeinschaft Home, the program operates from the same location on Mount Clinton Pike in Harrisonburg. Participants are subject to ongoing drug and alcohol screens and receive individual case management, counseling, and referrals to other community services.
Residence Life Coordinator, Jumar Peterson, has taken on the role of managing the new DRC, which is based on a cognitive-behavioral therapy model. The program embodies a life-recovery approach, and participants address a range of issues, from interpersonal communication and family relationships, to anger management and addiction.
Individuals are referred to outside professional resources, particularly in cases where medical treatment for mental health and/or substance abuse is necessary, but also for mentorship and employment opportunities.
Jasmine Gray, the program assistant explains that each participant receives an individualized case plan, based on his or her level of need. For example, some individuals must check in daily, while others report once a week, but all participants are screened for drugs and alcohol and required to attend group counseling sessions. Gray adds that case plans include additional directives from court services, such as an order for a participant to complete the Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP) or a number of community service hours.
Participants started arriving the first week of January, and so far, the program has enrolled a total of ten individuals—five women (age 20-25), and five men (age 20-45). At this point, no one has been terminated from the program. Examples of actions that could result in a dismissal include failing a drug and/or alcohol screen, missing a required meeting with a case manager, and being charged with another crime.
Sharon Ringgold, the executive director of Gemeinschaft Home, expects the number of participants entering the program to increase over the next several months, as the referral process for enrollment is refined and more judges order the Day Reporting Center as a viable alternative to incarceration for some offenders.
Ringgold also anticipates the need for greater building capacity and a larger staff to manage the program in the near future. She is proud to say that Gemeinschaft Home is well-equipped to serve a significant number of individuals in the community who need help more than a jail cell.
College Students Working to Learn
by Jennifer Jacovitch
At the heart of just about any non-profit organization is a sizable portion of unpaid labor. Of course the core staff members receive a salary and employment benefits—and appropriately so—but the success of a great organization is, in large part, the result of a volunteer workforce.
Student interns from local colleges and universities represent an indispensable resource of donated work for Gemeinschaft Home. Whether on a semester- or year-long basis, both undergraduate and graduate students earn course credits working in a variety of contexts within the organization. For example, graduate students fulfill practicum hours working with residents on the counseling side of the program or help to collect data for research and statistical analysis purposes.
The cohort of student interns currently working at Gemeinschaft Home is a unique mix of undergraduate and graduate students from a range of academic backgrounds and institutions. Each student brings dedication and skill, while gaining real-world experience the opportunity to grow, and the residents and staff are grateful for their commitment.
Spring 2016 Interns
James Madison University
Undergraduate—major: accounting/minor: psychology
Undergraduate—major: sociology/minor: criminal justice
Clerical/entering case notes
Blue Ridge Community College
Group sessions/resident referrals
James Madison University
Undergraduate—major: writing, rhetoric,
and technical comm/minor: environmental science
Eastern Mennonite University
Graduate—Masters in Counseling
Group sessions/individual sessions
James Madison University
Undergraduate—major: communication studies/
minor: writing, rhetoric, and technical comm
by Erin McAllister
Gemeinschaft Home stands as the only offender reentry program in Virginia that utilizes the principles of restorative justice in every facet of its mission. Through a therapeutic approach that focuses on personal accountability, we seek to instill a sense of
confidence and responsibility in ex-offenders and to equip them with vital tools to support their own wellbeing as well as to contribute to their families and community.
Restorative justice is a fairly new concept that has developed over the past few decades, largely because of scholars such as Howard Zehr of Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In the 1970s, Dr. Zehr operated a small halfway house, a time in which he observed many unresolved issues within the criminal justice system. He also identified certain aspects of crime that the highly punitive American justice system simply did not address. Such issues left victims without closure and offenders without accountability to their victims, diminishing the community as a whole.
These circumstances have only worsened in recent decades, with a steady increase in rates of incarceration (and mandatory sentencing guidelines) particularly for non-violent crimes. Zehr believes that restorative justice offers a more productive tactic that benefits everyone involved in criminal behavior—offenders, victims, and the community.
During a recent interview, Dr. Zehr explained that restorative justice is an approach to crime that is comprised of three principles:
1. Repairing the harm that is caused by wrongdoing (restoration);
2. Encouraging appropriate accountability for addressing needs and repairing harm;
3. Engaging those impacted by the wrongdoing, including the victim, the offender, the community.
Zehr also emphasized that restorative justice is a highly adaptable practice, successful with individuals of any age, gender, race, etc., and helps to dispel the widespread myth that adult offenders are incapable of reformation.
He also pointed out that research on restorative justice is very positive, as lower rates of recidivism (offenders who commit crimes and return to incarceration) have been reported widely in connection with restorative justice practices.
Supporters of restorative justice still face the opposition of skeptics who push for harsher punitive measures and longer prison sentences for people who commit (non-violent) crimes. But the programs at Gemeinschaft Home provide an alternative path, one that leads to positive outcomes and supports individuals who seek to become healthy, productive members of the community.
by Latavia Taylor
A 2004 graduate of James Madison University, Levar Stoney is a living inspiration. After completing his undergraduate degree in political science, he attended the Virginia Commonwealth University Minority Political Leadership Institute, finishing in 2006.
Currently sworn as the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, since January of 2015, Stoney has made tremendous strides. Not only has he broken racial barriers, by becoming the first African American to be Secretary of the Commonwealth, he is also presently the youngest affiliate of Governor McAuliffe’s cabinet. Such accomplishments define Stoney’s success and offers inspiration for individuals of all ages and backgrounds.
Before he became Secretary of the Commonwealth, Stoney was closely involved with the election campaigns of Terry McAuliffe. During this period he obtained the title of Deputy Campaign Manager for the 2013 gubernatorial election, and he continued to set records as he was the youngest state executive director of the Democratic party in the United States.
In line with the mission of Gemeinschaft Home, Levar Stoney’s attitude and motivation to reach above and beyond the “status quo,” to achieve something greater, offers encouragement to individuals who have experienced hardships and substantial setbacks, giving them a sense of hope and a desire to persevere. We extend our gratitude to Levar Stoney who has accepted our invitation to give the keynote address during our annual banquet next April.
Board member Kay Knickrehm initially approached Stoney about speaking at the event, because of his heavy involvement with reforming policies that concern restoring citizen rights for ex-offenders. Stoney’s continuous work to help a population that is oftentimes overlooked and disregarded resonates loudly with the goals of Gemeinschaft Home.
In October of 2015, Governor McAuliffe assigned Stoney to lead Virginia’s efforts to streamline the process of restoring voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence. He also co-chairs the governor’s commission that will review the Commonwealth’s policy on parole. Stoney emphasizes that, “We put ourselves up to be a first-class state, yet we have one of the highest rates of second-class citizens—one of the highest rates of disenfranchisement.”
The banquet will raise funds for the organization as a whole, assisting with basic resident expenses, building improvements, and future projects. It will take place on April 22, 2016, at Park View Mennonite Church, in Harrisonburg.
by Latavia Taylor and Erin McAllister
“Just take a breath”—four simple words spoken by the executive director that led a man consumed by fear and doubt to a life changing recovery. After an interview with Daniel Farris, a former Gemeinschaft Home resident who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, it was clear that the impact of the program retained more than just a 90-day expiration and, instead, catapulted a lost individual into a new life.
At his initial arrival at Gemeinschaft Home last summer, Farris expected nothing more than stale phrases of encouragement and superficial relationships with the staff and residents, but he discovered something very different. He discovered a welcoming and non-judgmental space for residents. Farris explains that “some people need someone to save them from themselves,” and he credits the Gemeinschaft Home staff for giving him the support he needed at just the right moment.
Farris feels much gratitude for his relationship with the Gemeinschaft Home staff during his residency, saying, “The fact that the staff members are the people they are...that is a huge part of why this particular facility works the way it does.” He adds, “I mean you could throw grant money around and set up stuff like this all day long, but if you don’t have the right people and the right motives pushing the agenda, this doesn’t work.”
He explained that with the guidance of people like Sharon (Ringgold), Richi (Yowell), and Jumar (Peterson), residents gain a fighting chance to alter their decision-making toward positive rather than negative outcomes and to lay the proper foundation to permanently separate themselves from the harmful habits and patterns of their lives prior to incarceration.
After completing the 90-day program, Farris moved to Charlottesville and works as a groundskeeper for a local dance company. There is a clear sense of expectancy radiating from the former resident as he continues to work toward a future that includes stable employment and positive relationships with his family and friends.
While he does not know exactly what the future may bring, he is sure of one thing: “If I didn’t have this [Gemeinschaft Home], I probably would have come back home and linked up with the same people I was with before., and who knows where I would be?” His gratitude and recognition of the significant role Gemeinschaft Home has played in his present circumstances demonstrates the strength of the program and the difference that it can make in many people’s lives. Gemeinschaft Home is a place that its residents will never forget.
A Conversation with Case Manager & Residence Life Coordinator, Jumar Peterson
In the summer of 2014, shortly after graduating from James Madison University with a degree in psychology, Jumar Peterson joined the Gemeinschaft Home staff as a case manager and residence life coordinator. Having previously worked for the organization as a part-time shift supervisor, Peterson hit the ground running in the new position, becoming an integral part of the three-person team (with executive director Sharon Glick and program director Richi Yowell) in charge of the day-to-day operations of Gemeinschaft Home. Like his co-workers, Peterson points to the synergy of their group as critical to the success of the program, emphasizing that “we all have an authentic level of care for the guys, and while we all bring certain aspects of who we are as we evaluate any situation, we work together well as team.”
Peterson works closely with residents, both in groups and in one-on-one discussions, and the experiences he has gained over the last year have had an impact on where he sees himself going in the future. While he never planned to work with the current population of Gemeinschaft Home, Peterson always knew that he was destined for a career in serving others, “because that is what my heart is for, my heart is positioned to help people,” he explains.
In fact, his own life experiences have given Peterson insight that he now brings to his interactions with residents, pointing out, “My father has struggled with substance abuse issues for my whole life,” and that “living through his addiction, I never thought I would be a counselor for people with addiction; it kind of came full circle.”
When asked to characterize the overall nature of his work, Peterson says, “My goal is to restore hope, to let guys know that there is hope for them, that their life does have meaning and a purpose, and that they affect other people around them (whether they realize it or not).” He adds, “My mission, more than anything, is to let people know this isn’t the end of the road for them, because people can either feel stuck or they can look at this moment as a platform to launch. So, I try to identify wherever they are and to help them transition better.”
As the youngest full-time staff member who is also fresh out of college, Peterson faces daily challenges. Yet, “One thing I have learned is to be authentically me, and that breeds a certain type of genuineness, and I think the guys here pick up on that, he explains, but adds, “I struggle, too. This is my first ‘grown-up job,’ and so a lot of this is new to me. I just try to be me, and I have realized that being me has value.” Peterson points out, “I have life experiences that are helpful to the guys here; I can relate to a certain degree.” For example, “through some of my conversations with my dad, I know that a lot of guys who struggle with substance abuse issues feel alone, abandoned, and rejected. They feel a lot of regret, guilt, and shame.”
Consequently, Peterson argues that his most productive group sessions with residents are about those things “he has processed” himself, that he “can internalize and project.” In other words, he says, “I am not teaching a concept, I am teaching stuff that I have experienced, that I know to be true. That is the difference from just putting together some information to discuss.”
Peterson’s greatest desire for residents is to see that “even though they have made a mistake, they are still valuable as people.” The benefit of the effort is apparent, “When I see guys being appreciative of their lives and what they can do, when they can have that joy or excitement about life, never to neglect the fact that it was a struggle, but to see that they are working through it, that is the greatest reward.”
Gemeinschaft Home has submitted a formal bid to create a new program in collaboration with Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg.
In an effort to address the problem of jail overcrowding in the Shenandoah Valley, the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County issued a public call in August for proposals to establish a Day Reporting Center (DRC) in the local area.
A Day Reporting Center would provide an alternative to incarceration for certain individuals who have been charged with a crime and are awaiting trial--yet cannot afford to make bail.
Rather than being confined to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional jail until their trial date, individuals would instead be able to sustain employment, childcare, and other obligations, by participating in the program.
Such individuals, often first-time offenders, would be subject to intensive supervision, ongoing drug screens, and receive case management, counseling, and referrals to community services.
According to a recent article in Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record, Gemeinschaft Home was the only organization to submit a bid by the August 26th deadline. Gemeinschaft Home seeks to establish a Day Report Center in addition to its existing residential re-entry program, which would still operate on the property.
The two programs would function independently, with no interaction between the participants. If approved, Gemeinschaft Home would begin contract negotiations with local officials to iron out the finer details, with an official launch date to be announced in the coming months.
(Source: Cornell, Ryan. “County Gets Proposal for Day Reporting Facility.” Daily News-Record [Harrisonburg, VA] 28 Aug. 2015.)
Virginia Department of Corrections Representatives Visit from Across the State
by Jennifer Jacovitch
HARRISONBURG, Va Gemeinschaft Home hosted a promotional event on Thursday, August 27th, with dozens of representatives from the Virginia Department of Corrections and of regional community service organizations in attendance. Guests heard presentations from staff and board members, who explained the history and mission of the program and shared new developments in the organization.
Audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions and to tour the house and residential living areas. With a scenic view of the mountains, visitors also enjoyed lunch and lively discussions on the porch and lawn of the Gemeinschaft Home farm house.