Joseph Dudash talks about his experiences living at Gemeinschaft Home and his belief in the mission of re-entry programs that give individuals the tools they need to survive life after incarceration.
“DUDASH!” shouted bright and loud, is often heard when Gemeinschaft Home resident and house leader, Joseph Dudash, enters the room. Perhaps the unusual sound of his name—which he explains is Polish—invites others to proclaim it aloud as soon as they see him, but whatever the reason, people generally respond positively when he’s around.
He has a quiet way about him, but exudes a poise that is both robust and gentle. He speaks with confidence, and his words carry evidence of careful thought and reflection. It is the kind of charisma that good leaders are made from, and so it is unsurprising that Dudash quickly assumed a role of responsibility as a house leader.
Now in his late thirties, he provides an invaluable perspective for younger residents in the program, enabling him to offer a unique form of mentorship that is as beneficial for them as it is for his own personal growth. So far, Dudash’s ability to find employment has been limited, because of several debilitating physical injuries he sustained in the past and the current (and long overdue) medical treatment he receives now.
Nonetheless, when he is not on bedrest, recuperating from a series of back/neck surgeries, Joe spends his time around the house helping others, which he says has given him a sense of purpose that he has not felt for many years.
I met Mr. Dudash not long after he arrived at Gemeinschaft Home last summer, and over the last several months, he has shared some of his story with me—his experiences that include addiction, incarceration, homelessness, re-incarceration—and now his time living at Gemeinschaft Home.
The story begins roughly a decade ago, when Joe, a college-educated, married (with one child), productive citizen, worked at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center and later as a police officer at Western State Hospital.
However, in 2009, Dudash was badly injured on the job, an event that changed the course of his life.
The combination of severe pain, perpetually postponed medical procedures (stemming from issues in the workman’s compensation process), and his inability to sustain work completely unraveled the fabric of Joe’s world.
He cultivated a severe addiction to painkillers, which eventually led to a felony narcotics conviction and incarceration in February 2016. In addition to his freedom, he also lost his wife, child, and home in divorce.
By the time Joe was released from jail six months later, in October 2016, he was homeless. He could not turn to family members for help, because his relationships with them had deteriorated in previous years. While he found shelter at night (e.g., Salvation Army and Open Doors) in the local area, he struggled to survive during the daytime hours, while these services are unavailable, from 7:00am-7:00pm.
His physical injuries continued to worsen, particularly deteriorating nerve, muscle, and tissue damage, which further prohibited his ability to work. With little money and few options apparent, Joe used alcohol to diminish both the physical and emotional pain of his existence.
Because he was still on probation, when he was arrested in January of this year for being drunk in public, he was re-incarcerated for six more months.During a recent conversation, I listened to Joe talk about those months last year between his two incarcerations, and I struggled to reconcile the man he described with the man I saw now sitting across the table. “I wanted to die,” he explains, recalling one specific moment last New Year’s Eve.
That night he spent the last of his money on a bottle of liquor and the rest of the night in a covered bus stop, trying to avoid the rainy cold weather. “I had reached rock bottom, and I did not care about anything anymore.” Within days, Dudash was again behind bars.
After his release in June, Joe Dudash was ordered to complete Gemeinschaft Home’s program, which marked the beginning of the newest chapter in his story. He points out that he has now been incarcerated twice, but what happened afterward has made a significant difference in his capacity to move forward in life.
Overall, the Gemeinschaft program has supported Joe in two ways: 1. By providing basic life necessities (clothing and food), including a safe place to stay 24/7; and 2. By offering vital tools, counseling, and advice on a range of issues from addiction to family relationships.
Dudash characterizes the program as “a structure with lose wires,” a flexible framework that gives participants a chance to build better foundation for life.
“There are a lot of little things that entail the Gemeinschaft Home program. The Gemeinschaft program is a safety net,” Dudash says, further explaining that it is the “small things, the everyday things people don’t really think about, like running water, electricity—you know, they think about it when it’s time for bills—but these are things that can make or break you.”
He adds that because he lives at Gemeinschaft Home, “I can take a shower when I need to. I don’t have to wear the same clothes every day for a month.” Consequently, Joe has been given the opportunity to heal from his physical injuries, and to gain some useful strategies for dealing with life’s curveballs down the road.
“The fact that we work on stuff in group sessions together, that there are counselors available to talk to when we need them is what makes the chance we have here possible,” he says.
He is now at a point where he can establish long term (staying clean and sober) as well as and short-term (finishing school) goals for himself that include a renewed interest in working again in criminal justice.
Dudash revealed that “For many years, I thought my career with law enforcement and corrections was totally over,” but now says he would love to get back into this work, especially in a setting like Gemeinschaft Home, because “it would give me a good, solid purpose, which is what I thrive on…”
For now, Joe is making steady progress, and he is already helping others along the way. Gemeinschaft Home makes the journey possible, but each resident has to take the initiative to walk it the path each day, and Joe is making steps in the right direction.