"When will I get my certificate of completion?"
Shtunka's question caught me off guard as I was helping her unload her housewarming gifts into her new apartment. I had never had any Rachel's House graduates ask me about certificates before.
She had just graduated from Rachel's House, our transitional housing program for formerly incarcerated women. To "graduate" from Rachel's House, women must successfully fulfill the requirements of three phases. Each phase is designed to support and equip women with practical skills, such as workforce development, financial self-sufficiency through education and mentoring, and fostering healthy relationships, as they transition from prison to "the real world." The Rachel's House program creates a "safe space" for women to walk through these phases in a community or family like setting.
For Shtunka, she had spent over half of her life in prison as she went in as a teenager. In prison, there are a host of programs where women can take classes in everything from culinary to anger management to horticulture. Some classes last several weeks and others are up to 2 year intensive programs. At the completion of each class, women are given certificates of completion. As I thought about Shtunka's question, it dawned on me that graduating from Rachel's House wasn't just a "check the box" and get a piece of paper. For her, it meant that she had successfully finished something that she had put her hard work and effort into.
The certificate was a representation and reminder of where she had been and what she had been able to accomplish.
For her and many women like her, being "locked up" for many years and facing the prospect of release, it can be overwhelming at the thought of starting over. The world - and themselves - have changed since they first went in. Having a safe place to go with people who understand "institutionalization" (being heavily conditioned by living in a structured environment for periods of time) and what the range of overwhelming feelings are like helps ease in the re-entry transition.
Shtunka's journey at Rachel's House could best be described in one word, "Joy!" In getting to know her last July, we soon discovered that there were a lot of things that she had never done or experienced before. From learning how to use a smartphone and FaceTiming out of town relatives to hiking at Lake Hope, to picking out a pumpkin at a pumpkin patch and carving it for Halloween, it was a joy to experience her joy as she did things for the first time. Getting her first paycheck and seeing how some of it went to taxes was not a joy! But it was a joy when she went on her first interview in her freshly ironed interview clothes from Dress for Success and then got a call back a couple days later with the news that she had gotten the job.
For the Rachel's House/Lower Lights Ministries staff and volunteers, it is always a joy and privilege to walk alongside women and experience the "joy of the firsts" together. Whether driving a woman out of town so that she can see her kids for the first time in years, preparing for a job interview, going to the bank and opening their first savings and checking account, or planning a menu and guest list for a holiday luncheon, these things can be overwhelming at first, but the joy in accomplishing something that they never thought possible is something that when shared, brings immeasurable joy and celebration for all involved.
It was a joy for me as I searched the shelves at Hobby Lobby for just the right certificate frame. I wanted it to stand out on Shtunka's apartment wall as a reminder that she not only graduated from Rachel's House, but that every time she looks at it, she will be reminded of the joy of faithfulness and a community of people who love her.
- Emmalyn Jerome - Rachel's House Director