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Christian rehab community offers women leaving prison a place to grow, spiritually and otherwise

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Tears streamed from Jamie Hughes' eyes as the former drug addict and prostitute explained why she had to make a "pit stop" on the road from prison to freedom. The 32-year-old mother of four could have returned to her bad habits after serving two years for burglary, but instead of running to her old neighborhood, old friends, and familiar temptations, she chose to check into Rachel's House, a Christian rehab community in the city's west end.

Rachel's House gave her "direction in what I want to do with my life," Hughes said as she sat on the living room sofa in the house she shares with three other ex-convicts and one resident director. Far from impersonal or institutionalized, the place has all the makings of a home: cute refrigerator magnets, group photos, a computer, a painting of Jesus on the mantle, a copy of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life on a neatly made bed, and a few dirty glasses in an otherwise tidy kitchen.

A sheet on a bulletin board lists the chore schedule. Hughes apologized for some clothes left piled on a shelf. Headquartered at Bellows Avenue Church of the Nazarene, Rachel's House runs two three-story, urban residences for women not quite ready to return to a normal life. Hughes and her housemates signed a six-month "covenant" in which they promise, among other things, to clean the bathrooms, make the beds, be home by 11 p.m., submit to random drug testing, and avoid profane or disrespectful speech.

But as Rachel's House director Jan Ruark pointed out, the windows have no bars, and the emphasis is on trusting the women to be responsible, rather than threatening them into submission. "They're here because they want to be here, and that makes all the difference," Ruark said. Or, as Hughes put it, "They allow us to make the right choices. . . . It's us and Jesus."

Most of the women have served time for drugs, forgery, or theft. Others have committed murder or armed robbery. The program does not accept sex offenders. In July, six women lived at Rachel's House; two more planned to come in August. Of the 42 ex-convicts who have entered the program since its 2002 inception, 26 have completed it.

Rehabilitation begins behind the walls of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and the Franklin Pre-Release Center, where Rachel's House leads Bible studies. Led to Christian faith by an inmate, Hughes joined a study group-the first step toward joining the program. On release day a Rachel's House worker picked her up at the gate and brought her to her new home, where she was handed a copy of the covenant and asked to pray about each page before signing.

After a 40-day orientation-Ruark calls it "soaking before the Lord"-residents find jobs, open savings accounts, pay rent ($265 per month includes utilities, transportation, medical bills, and food), and get to visit family members overnight. A counselor helps each woman write her resumé and retain her job once she gets one, since many have never learned basic skills like punctuality or interpersonal communication.

Each woman decides which support groups are best for her. Hughes attends Alcoholics Anonymous, works as a waitress, studies at a community college, and worships at Bellows Nazarene. A resident who earned a horticultural degree while in prison grows tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and broccoli in the backyard. As the women advance through the program, they earn more freedom: They can get prepaid cell phones and buy their own cars.

If they complain about the rules, Ruark reminds them that they covenanted with God. Physical assault or staying out all night merit immediate dismissal, while other behaviors incur a write-up or are simply tolerated. Television viewing presents a gray area. Pornography and graphic violence are forbidden, but "we're not the television police," Ruark said. Because some movies can trigger unhealthy feelings and feed sexual addictions, counselors encourage the women to consider the effects of what they watch, but the women have the freedom to make the wrong decision.

Rachel's House stresses community service as an important part of recovery. Residents feed the homeless, talk to street kids, and do "work and witness" trips: They are preparing to build a church on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Some women sing on the worship team or serve as greeters at Bellows Nazarene, but they are allowed to attend a different church.

Eight to 10 Christian counselors surround each woman at Rachel's House. Beside employment, financial, stewardship, and recovery mentors, and a community support team, each woman is paired with a volunteer to spend time with once a week, whether to pray, go out to eat, or just talk. Mary Robinson, 49, a mail carrier, has been volunteering since February and was so impressed by the program that she joined the church.

Intern Kari Krestel, 24, lives in one of the houses and serves as the volunteer coordinator. Volunteers come from various church affiliations, stay for an average of 18 to 24 months, and must be committed Christians who believe in developing relationships with the women. But Krestel said the older residents are often the best mentors, because they understand what the women are going through. Krestel knew little about prison ministry when she signed up for Rachel's House, and she has found that she relies on the support of the women as much as they rely on her.

"It took living in a house with addicts to realize my own addictions," Krestel says.

Krestel recalls how, when she first met Hughes, the new resident opened her Bible and preached a sermon she needed to hear about trusting God. Later, Hughes initiated a prayer circle with the residents. In the other house, the women converted the attic into a prayer room, cozy but stuffy in the summer heat and stocked with Christian books and music.

Rachel's House staff consider the women's Christian faith their first priority. David Gay, director of Lower Lights Ministries, which oversees Rachel's House, said every success story has been the result of a woman getting serious about her relationship with Christ. The women learn the depth of God's love, he said, through their relationships with other people-staff, church members, volunteers, and others. Ruark sees faith as integral to recovery: The women should not merely seek to end their drug addictions or escape a life of crime, but must, as the third chapter of Colossians teaches, put off the old self and take on the new.

"The Lord has truly delivered me from those addictions," Hughes said. "I don't think the same. I don't like to do the same things." Rachel's House residents may stay as long as they need to, and while some stay in contact with their counselors after they leave, no formal system exists for keeping track of the women.

As a part of Lower Lights Ministries, Rachel's House staff and volunteers juggle their primary jobs with other activities at the church. One day Krestel rushed to three stores to find rubber balls for about 20 children gathered for a Narnia-themed day camp.

Lower Lights also does family counseling, feeds and clothes the homeless, and operates a Christian health center. By partnering with the Franklinton Development Association, Lower Lights plans to help the women find affordable housing. One plan is to purchase a red-brick apartment building next door so the women will be able to rent it. Part of the rent money would then go to a fund for future home ownership.

Rachel's House accepts no government funds that would require it to change the program. Last year, government funding comprised 3 percent of Lower Lights' $157,000 budget, and came from the Ohio Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The funds support a 14-month project demonstrating the effectiveness of small, faith-based organizations in transitioning ex-convicts into society.

As for Hughes, she remains focused on her goals: a GED, a better-paying job, and a chance to be a good mother to her children.

Anthony Mator

Anthony Mator