A Look Back at the History of Gemeinschaft Home
By Daniel Martin
A white van turns left off the main road and pulls into the driveway at a Victorian style building. Out steps an armed guard, accompanied by an individual with his hands shackled behind him. A seemingly typical Department of Corrections transfer is taking place. Here, however, the guard sets down his gun and leans it up against the side of the vehicle. He unshackles the now ex-offender’s arms, who walks free from physical chains up to the front door of the building. The individual has arrived at 1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, which looks out not over prison walls of concrete and metal fences topped by barbed wire, but across open, green fields full of cattle.
The house, which has come to symbolize the next step on the road to freedom, is Gemeinschaft Home. From its humble beginning in 1985, through the ups and downs of finances, circumstances, successes, and failures, Gemeinschaft Home has come fully to embrace its name--Gemeinschaft means community in German.
In 1973, the home was used by a group of students and faculty from Eastern Mennonite College (now Eastern Mennonite University), who worked to form a Christian-based, intentional living community. They named it “Gemeinschaft,” in honor of their goal to live and work together. After five years of communal living, the community dissolved, and the house stood vacant for two years.
In 1979, Barry Hart and Jerry and Kathy Sisley, part of the original intentional community group, saw the need for a halfway house in the area and decided to use their home to house ex-offenders, mentally ill patients, and foreign refugees. They established the new facility in collaboration with a core group of 6-8 Harrisonburg community members, forming another iteration of the intentional community that they also called Gemeinschaft Home. The decision to create a halfway house community was made ad hoc, with no involvement from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC).
Gemeinschaft Home carried on for five years, often with 1-2 ex-offenders living with members of the intentional community. After five years, however, the transitory nature of the arrangement--both ex-offenders and community members would come and go--the community faltered.
In the meantime, Hart, along with Titus Bender, a professor at EMC, and Larry Hoover formed an organization called “Neighbors in Corrections” that focused on alternatives to incarceration. City leadership at the time, encouraged Hart, Bender, and Hoover to revisit the idea of a community-based halfway house.
By this time, however, an auction was already underway to sell the property and the house. At the last minute, literally while the auctioneer was getting ready to start bidding on the house, Hart, Bender, and Hoover decided collectively that they could not just let the last 5-6 years go to waste. Lewis Strite agreed to put up the money to purchase the property, and the group stopped the auctioneer. Strite then sold the house to a consortium, including Barry Hart, and a month and a half later (June 4, 1985), Gemeinschaft Home was incorporated as a non-profit organization.
While the concept for Gemeinschaft Home in its current form was established at this time, there were still other steps to be taken in the community. The Rockingham County Board of supervisors had some concern, because of a previous attempt to create a halfway house near Broadway, Virginia (about 13 miles north) that had resulted in a bomb going off at the construction site, as members of the community did not want a halfway house built at the location.
The Board of Supervisors did not want a repeat of such an event at Gemeinschaft Home, and they asked for clarification about the exact plans of the consortium. Hart and the other members pointed out that they had been part of the community for numerous years and had formed positive relationships with their neighbors. A meeting at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Harrisonburg, on August 7, 1985, served only to confirm the group’s statements. The local community was invited to respond to the idea of a halfway house in the area, and the response was overwhelming support.
As the year came to a close, a board of directors was formed, and plans were drawn up to open the facility. The house, built in 1895, was in a state of “ill-repair,” and numerous renovations were needed. From January 22-29,1986, work on the house was carried out by volunteers from local church groups, student volunteers from EMC and James Madison University, as well as six offenders from minimum security prisons provided by the VADOC. Such a diverse group of people further underscored the positive community attitude toward the idea of Gemeinschaft Home.
In 1986, Gemeinschaft Home received tax-exemption status, gained support from the new head of the VADOC, gained its first director, Diane Stiteler Gray, and its first house manager, Byron Humphries. With all of the pieces in place, Gemeinschaft Home officially opened its doors on Sunday, September 28, 1986.
Over the next 20 years, the idea of Gemeinschaft Home gained traction, the home, now funded as a therapeutic community by the VADOC, expanded, increasing the numbers of residents, adding a female program and multiple locations in Harrisonburg and one facility, Piedmont House, in Charlottesville, VA.
However, the Great recession of 2008/2009 brought many challenges to the organization--the annual budget shrank from about $1.5 million to $500,000 almost overnight, and the VADOC converted their therapeutic communities from six-month to three-month programs. As a result, Gemeinschaft Home was forced to close down all but the original CRP program located on Mt.Clinton Pike.
Yet, the past decade has also brought new opportunities, including the development of The Day Reporting Center, in 2016, a partnership with the local Drug Court, in 2017, and numerous collaborations with local colleges, universities, and other community partners. Now the priority is to establish a new residential program for women.
As Gemeinschaft Home is honoring its history on the occasion of its 35th anniversary the main goal, which according to Hart, was to “provide both a physical place and mental space for people to take a breath after prison before going back into society fully” is still firmly in place. And, as the organization is looking toward the future, its guiding value of honoring people and their dignity will continue to place it at the forefront of positive change in the community.
Contributor: Andrew Garrison
The process of leaving incarceration and integrating back into society is a challenge for a number of reasons. Frequently, with little support, each individual must navigate a range of obstacles to find stable housing and employment, to maintain physical and mental health, and to reestablish social relationships with spouses, children, and other family members.
Financial obligations such as paying off court fines and setting up child support agreements complicate matters more, as each person tries to build a new life after serving time. Even the process of obtaining a drivers license again can be expensive and tedious, but it can be the deciding factor in someone’s ability to maintain a job.
In many cases, people in this situation need extra help to get back on track, and often this help comes from organizations like Gemeinschaft Home. For 35 years, this unique nonprofit organization has used the philosophy and ethics of a therapeutic community to help teach, support, and prepare recently released individuals for a new life.
From the minute new participants walk through the door, they are a part of Gemeinschaft Home’s therapeutic community and programs that incorporate all aspects of life into the reentry process. The programs at Gemeinschaft Home—the Community Residential Program and Self-Pay Program, the Drug Court Program, and the Day Reporting Center all offer settings in which participants gain valuable skills and strategies for acceptable living, as well as the motivation to become productive citizens in the community at large.
The Community Residential Program (CRP) is based on mutual trust and respect, shared leadership and responsibility, mentorship, and the idea of “graduated freedom.” Residents participate in the daily and weekly chore schedules to maintain the cleanliness and upkeep of the house and to learn accountability and helpful life skills. The resident leadership structure provides opportunities for regular development meetings and a formal grievance and conflict resolution procedures.
The emphasis placed on residents making decisions for themselves or as a group creates a sense of autonomy that is important during their transition stage, as it encourages personal responsibility and consideration for self and others.
The Self-Pay program is designed for males from the local area who have completed the 90-day program, and local males in need of residential-based services can apply to live at Gemeinschaft Home at a low-cost fee. The structure of the CRP applies to these residents as well as those referred by the Drug Court (based on their need for residential services).
The Day Reporting Center (DRC) is a collaborative initiative with the Harrisonburg/Rockingham County court services that provides an alternative to incarceration for selected individuals in the pre- or post-trial process. Participants enroll in the program enabling them to sustain employment, childcare, and other obligations, while receiving needed services and supervision. Depending on their level of need, they report from 1-5 days per week for a combination of mandatory drug screens, case management, and group and individual sessions. Male participants with a high need for structured supervision can receive residential support as well.
Therapeutic interventions at Gemeinschaft Home, for residents and non-residents alike, come in two primary forms: group and individual sessions covering key areas of life recovery (self-awareness, relapse prevention, emotional control, conflict resolution, etc.) and case management providing practical guidance through the reentry and recovery process, referral services, and a personal accountability mechanism.
Gemeinschaft Home’s therapeutic community approach is essential for engendering mutual and self-respect among the participants and helping them regain some of the autonomy they have lost. This supportive structure helps them get a better understanding of themselves and others, ultimately contributing to an environment built to grow and to uplift one another.
JMU Students Work on Research and Volunteer Projects at Gemeinschaft Home During the Fall 2019 Semester.
James Madison University prides itself on being the “engaged university,” meaning that the institution seeks to build partnerships with community organizations in Harrisonburg and the local area, to offer students contexts for learning that take them beyond the traditional classroom. Over the past several years, Gemeinschaft Home has developed its relationship with JMU faculty and students, including the addition several board members who are professors there, as well as the involvement of undergraduates and graduate students from a range of disciplines and majors.
Students complete internships on both the program and administrative side of the organization and volunteer a significant number of hours in a variety of capacities each semester. Volunteers help with clerical tasks such as updating documents, entering data into our database system, and organizing files, as well as assist in community events. Interns work with case managers and assist with group sessions and some work on grant writing, publications, and media projects.
During the Fall 2019 semester, JMU faculty and students from the School of Music and the Department of Social Work are continuing a music program (started in 2017) that brings students to the house to collaborate with Gemeinschaft Home residents on music and storytelling projects once a week. The project has continued over the last two years, with periodic community showcases of the group’s efforts.
Additionally, social work students studying organizational communication and public relations worked on a macro project during the Fall 2019 semester that focused entirely on fundraising ideas—via social media and online donation platforms—aimed at the college student population. They conducted research and produced a framework for implementing their proposed idea that will be quite useful for the organization.
Graduate students in the Masters of Public Administration program, enrolled in a graduate methods course that aims to expose students to a series of analytical techniques for practical applications in the public and nonprofit sectors, dove into the archives and files of former residents during the Fall 2019 semester. This hands-on experience for students enabled them to create a database of information about the population we serve and how the organization might gain insight from this information to understand and improve our programs and practices.
For more information about volunteer and internship opportunities, please visit http://www.gemeinschafthome.org/get-involved.html.
United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County launches annual community event, bringing volunteers to organizations across the area, including Gemeinschaft Home.
On Wednesday, September 25, a group of six volunteers—all employees of Massanutten Resort—arrived at Gemeinschaft Home bright and early. Their task for that morning and afternoon was painting the program room, a large space located in the Bender Building behind the main house, where group activities and meetings take place daily. It’s a high-traffic area, and the walls and doors had begun to show signs of wear and tear over the past couple of years.
Team leader Donita Quinn, joined by five of her work colleagues at Massanutten Resort, arrived around 9:30am—all wearing red “UNITED” t-shirts designed for the event, and they started work right away, after a brief introduction and tour of the facilities. Quinn explained that their group specifically selected Gemeinschaft Home as their project site, because of their desire to support our mission to serve formerly incarcerated individuals. Their efforts included sanding, taping off areas of the walls to accommodate two colors, and applying paint to the walls, doors, and trim. After a short lunch break, the group worked a few more hours into the late afternoon.
We are grateful for the time and energy these volunteers graciously devoted to Gemeinschaft Home; their work was immediately noticed and appreciated by the current program participants and staff, as the room is now bright, updated, and inviting!
The project, part of a larger community-wide initiative, is organized every year by United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, with the support of local businesses sponsors. This year, the event highlighted 90 projects, at 38 organizations, with over 650 volunteers!
Gemeinschaft Home Residents will soon have a workout room, made possible by the 2020 Vision for the Future Fundraising Campaign, and a covered sitting area with connected walkway.
Routine maintenance and repairs are just part of life at Gemeinschaft Home, but recent construction will soon bring a needed asset to the home—a workout room. Until this past summer, the only onsite exercise options residents had were a few benches and free-weight sets, kept outside on the back porch. During the warmer months, residents often used the equipment, but in the colder seasons, the weather made working out unbearable for most people.
Yet, having a place to work out and doing so regularly—whether with free weights or other means—is a practice that many individuals pick up while incarcerated and wish to continue. Regular exercise provides both physical and mental wellness, and the opportunity to work out should be a necessary part of residents’ experience at
Gemeinschaft Home, too.
With funds raised so far in the 2020 Vision for the Future campaign, we broke ground on a new workout room this past summer, and we are in the final stages of completing the construction portion of the project this month. We are currently still raising funds and searching for commercial-grade workout machines (treadmill, bicycle, etc.), rubber mat flooring, as well as for updating the free-weight benches and equipment.
The new room is an addition to the back of the main house, created by closing in the existing porch area, where the exercise equipment was already located. The project included demolishing an existing retaining wall and constructing a new one that serves as the exterior wall for the workout room.
The former porch also served as an outdoor sitting area with benches and a picnic table; these items were moved further back into the yard, placed onto a concrete base (with connecting walkway), and covered by a gazebo. The flooring in two other areas, the back hallway and the Blosser Lounge, are also being overhauled, with new sub-flooring and high-traffic carpeting.
We are grateful to the individuals who provided time, labor, and services, including: Russ Leinbach (including contributions from the builder’s guild), Sam Miller, John Butler, Mark Capps, Phil Blosser, Moss Construction, and David Stenson Construction.
Gemeinschaft Home’s New Case Manager Discusses Need for Local Women’s Residential Program
This past summer, Michelle Roberts joined the Gemeinschaft Home staff as a case manager, working with female participants in the Day Reporting program.
A recent graduate of Blue Ridge Community College (with a degree in Human Services), Roberts had been working as an unpaid intern for two semesters and then as a paid summer intern at Gemeinschaft Home, which made her transition into the new position rather seamless.
Over the last decade, Roberts has faced her own cyclic battle with addiction, recovery, and relapse. During this time, which began in her teenage years, Roberts’ use of heroin eventually resulted in criminal charges and incarceration. While she experienced moments of positive growth—usually after participating in a mandated recovery program—inevitable relapses led to multiple overdoses, periodic homelessness, and re-incarceration.
As she grew older, Roberts began to recognize that the loop was never-ending and that the limited number of outcomes from a heroin addiction—overdose (death) or incarceration—were no longer tenable. She re-established connections with her family that had been lost during her teens and early-20s, and she credits her parent’s effort to learn more about substance abuse (e.g., joining an Al-Anon group) as making that possible.
She points out that they started to see her not as a deviant person intent on breaking the law, but as someone who fought a heroin addiction that led to criminal behavior. Roberts also acknowledges her husband Josh’s supportive role in her work to remain substance free for years.
Roberts is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work at Mary Baldwin University, and she hopes to forge a career path that will enable her to draw on her lived experiences as well as her formal education in order to serve others—particularly women who struggle with substance abuse.
The Day Reporting program provides such a context for Roberts to assist women who face the same issues that have shaped her own life. However, it also endows with her with unique insight on the precise obstacles to success for participants in the program. While the structure is effective overall—e.g., required drug screens, mandatory individual and group sessions, case management, etc.—the day-reporting framework itself is inadequate and/or unnecessarily cumbersome for many participants to successfully complete the program.
A safe, stable home environment and access to reliable transportation are the two primary barriers debilitating women in the program. Roberts argues that “women need a safe place to foster their recovery,” where they are away from “unhealthy relationships and the temptation to use and where recovery becomes an all-day, every-day focus, rather than a couple of hours a week.”
A full-time residential program for women would achieve this purpose, yet there is no such service available in the local area, representing a dire need in our community, especially for women exiting incarceration. Many of the clients Roberts works with in the Day Reporting program are homeless, which creates a daily challenge to survive as well as to adhere to program guidelines and mandatory appointments.
Several of her clients often find a place to sleep at night in one of the local shelters, but such accommodations are never guaranteed and present even further complications. “It’s hard to focus on recovery when you’re unsure where you’re sleeping tonight,” Roberts says, and, even for those who have a home, “most have suspended drivers licenses or no vehicle or live outside of the city limits, where there is no public transportation.” Additionally, having a home can also mean living with a toxic partner or among others who are using substances.
Roberts stresses that a residential program would give women a support system right at home, offering a safe environment that is substance-free and away from unhealthy relationships. With basic survival needs met, women enrolled in a residential program would be able to give their full attention to growth and recovery, while immersed in supportive community that fosters both accountability and responsibility. Without adequate support, the likelihood of relapse is nearly assured; for those under supervised probation (as is the case for Day Reporting participants), this means a positive drug screen and, in most cases, re-incarceration.
Roberts believes that a residential program would have given her a better opportunity to deal head-on with her addiction and to learn valuable tools for coping with life after incarceration in a more productive way. Today she hopes to be part of building such a facility and giving other women a second chance at life.
On June 14, Gemeinschaft Home hosted an event to install a 25.0 kilowatts solar panel system on the main house and program building. A project spearheaded by Give Solar (http://give.solar), a local organization led by Jeff Heie, in collaboration with community partners, including general contractors and solar energy service Green Hill Solar (http://greenhillsolar.org), the “solar barn-raising” combined the efforts of community experts, volunteers, and Gemeinschaft Home residents to install the panels in one afternoon.
The project will enable Gemeinschaft Home to save about 80% of current energy costs (approximately $5,000 each year for up to 25 years) that can be used instead to support the organization’s programs and services. A significant part of Give Solar’s mission is to help fundraise for the project, with as little output of resources from the organization as possible, as well as to coordinate with professional contractors and solar energy experts to ensure the appropriate installation and maintenance of each system.
Over the last few years, Give Solar has provided solar panel installations for Eastern Mennonite University, Gift & Thrift, and Our Community Place (OCP) in Harrisonburg. Specifically, Give Solar seeks to help nonprofits in which those served by the organization can immediately benefit from the solar system installation. Because our program participants either live full-time or receive direct services at Gemeinschaft Home, the organization was selected by Give Solar as a project recipient.
The total cost of Gemeinschaft Home’s solar system installation was $32,310 ($1.29/kw). Starting with a grant from the Merck Foundation, Give Solar raised additional funds through large contributions from community sponsors, as well as small gifts from crowdfunding sources and in-kind donations, for a total amount of $25,009. While we ultimately fell short of the total fundraising goal, the energy savings that the organization will see over the next couple years will cover the difference, while still providing energy savings overall.
On July 19, Gemeinschaft Home hosted a formal ceremony to turn on the solar system—or “flip the switch”—and the electrical system of the house immediately began to make use of energy generated by the new system. We are proud of this project and ever grateful to the people who made it possible, from the generous contributors to the volunteers who gave their time, energy, and labor. Thank you for helping us to make our community stronger and better equipped to serve others.
Gemeinschaft Home's New Canine Friend
Animal companions are a source of comfort in our lives; people living with pets, who often greet them when they come home each day, have claims to lower blood pressure, less stress, and a near constant source of love and affection in their lives.
During their time at Gemeinschaft Home, residents are not allowed to own pets, but, fortunately, there is still a way for them to experience the benefits of interacting with one, thanks to a new opportunity generously provided by Kathryn (Kasia) Rathgeber and Judi, a therapy dog.
With a vivacious personality and a great smile (see photos), Judi exudes warmth and a clear sense of purpose when she arrives at Gemeinschaft Home, usually on Friday afternoons, which happens the instant Kasia puts on her therapy dog jacket.
Judi is a certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs—she is not a service dog—and provides emotional support and affection to anyone who encounters her. There is never a set agenda during her visits; instead, she trots from room to room, seeking interaction with people who in return give her lots of attention and cuddles. Judi always brings a positive vibe and leaves those she visits with a smile.
Residents have responded positively to Judi and ask about her when she has not visited for a little while. Her energy is contagious!
Through a partnership with Give Solar (http://give.solar) and a grant from the Merck Foundation, Gemeinschaft Home is getting ready to install a solar panel system on the premises this spring. Gemeinschaft Home is one of two community organizations to be selected for this project, which will save us thousands of dollars each year in energy cost savings. Jeffrey Heie is leading the initiative to coordinate grant support with crowd-funding revenue and major donations to support the project. He is also in the process of organizing labor, with the help of local contractors and volunteers, to begin construction in May. Make a donation today!
A program that began in Fall 2017, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, JMU Music and Social Work faculty and students continue working together on a songwriting and storytelling project that help educate the broader community about the issues facing incarcerated individuals and their transition back into society. Robby McCoubrey is in charge of the program this year, meeting with residents on a weekly basis, in conjunction with students who assist in the project. The group occasionally performs in the community, providing a productive way for local citizens to learn about our residents.