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.