A Conversation with one of the first graduates of Gemeinschaft Home’s residential program for women.
For over two decades, 44-year-old Christina “Chris” Ongaro was always moving—most often on foot—from one place to the next. “I’ve just always walked everywhere. Whenever something happened to me in life, I just started walking,” she explains.
However, the destination was always the same—anywhere she could obtain alcohol and crystal methamphetamine—and other concerns, such as where she would sleep that night or where she would go the following day, were a lower priority.
“I would help cover some rent here or there, to sleep on a sofa or have a place to stay for few nights, and then I would figure out something else later,” Ongaro says, adding that sometimes she would be awake for days before finding a place to sleep, and then the cycle would start over again. “I didn’t want to feel anything at all. I just wanted to escape.”
In such moments, Ongaro would sometimes shoplift items from various stores, often just because she felt emboldened to do so, but also to support her addictions. She always wanted to be surrounded by substance abusers, noting that she willfully avoided family members and loved ones, to spend time exclusively with others actively submerged in their addictions.
Occasionally, she would face a drug possession (or other low-level) conviction and serve time behind bars, only to return to the streets when she was released from incarceration.
Ongaro is originally from Florida and moved permanently to Virginia about 16 years ago. While she did not discuss her personal/family life or childhood at length, Ongaro revealed that she had grown up in a toxic home environment, with an abusive father who terrorized both her mother and siblings.
She spoke specifically about her father’s violent attacks on her mother, episodes that she witnessed firsthand as a child, and how those experiences shaped her relationship with her mother as an adult.
Battling a variety of health problems of her own in recent years, Ongaro’s mother relied on her heavily for ongoing care, which she managed despite being active in her own addiction. Her mother was one of the few constants in her life.
Yet, she could no longer care for her mother after she was incarcerated again at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland in 2017.
By the time Ongaro was released in August 2020, her mother had passed away, a shocking reality that made staying sober and off the streets impossible, and she started to spiral downward nearly immediately.
She had returned to Harrisonburg on probation, but she had nowhere to live. After a brief (unsuccessful) stay at a local Oxford House, she resumed her usual pattern of moving from one place to another.
She was enrolled in the Gemeinschaft Home Day Reporting Center (DRC) program, but without a stable living situation, she struggled to gain much from the experience and admitted to continuously using drugs, despite regular testing requirements.
Faced with termination from the program, she attempted a stay at Arbor House in Harrisonburg, to get stabilized, but she left after realizing that her substance abuse problem was more pressing than the mental health concerns that were addressed there.
Ongaro was out of options, and she recognized that she was in violation of her probation conditions (i.e., using drugs and not completing a mandated program).
She understood well that the upcoming check-in with her probation officer—just days away—would result in another stint behind bars. With nowhere else to turn, she made the decision to turn herself in early, and in December 2020, she started a six-month sentence at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail as punishment for her probation violation.
Fortunately, when she was released in May of this year, she had a new opportunity for help, one that had not existed only a few months prior—the newly established women’s residential program at Gemeinschaft Home.
With a seven-year prison sentence still hanging over her head, time she would serve if she violated the terms of her probation again, Ongaro needed urgent help to remain clean and sober and to establish a new direction for her life, which necessitates the safety, security, and structure of a residential program.
For Ongaro, who has spent her entire adult life with no sense of stability or consistency, the opportunity to be in full-time residential program with 24/7 support has been a life changing experience. Today, she is one of the first women to successfully complete the 90-day program, but the journey has presented several challenges.
“I admit that I was not easy for the staff to handle sometimes,” Ongaro says, citing one incident when everyone in the house lost their pass time privilege (several hours of personal time away from the house) for not completing household chores.
She exploded in anger, shouting at other residents and staff members, and the episode concluded in a one-on-one discussion with her case manager, Michelle Roberts, who Ongaro argues is the single reason she finished the program.
“Michell told me, ‘I am going to keep believing in you until you start to believe in yourself,’ which really stuck with me,” Ongaro says.
Primarily, Michelle has helped her to understand the importance of processing emotions, something that Ongaro always managed to avoid—walking away from conflict and escaping into drug and alcohol abuse. “I needed to learn how to hit the pause button, to reflect on a situation before acting on it,” she explains.
The life-recovery group sessions have reinforced concepts like this, and while discussing personal emotions has been a new experience for Ongaro, she stresses the importance of having a strong circle of social support to do so.
She is now a graduate of the program, but she will continue some of the structure she established while living at Gemeinschaft Home, such as still participating in the day reporting program, attending AA meetings twice a week and a drug abuse group session once a week.
She will also maintain her current employment with Mercy House in Harrisonburg—a position she was offered after completing some community service hours there while in the program. But she also plans to visit Gemeinschaft Home in the future, to mentor future residents, saying, “If this program can help me to change, it can help anyone to change.”
Ongaro states unequivocally that without the Gemeinschaft Home program, she would not be where she is today: sober, employed, and ready to move into her own home. She knows the road ahead is going to have some sharp turns, but she has a stronger foundation than ever before to grow roots and build a life.