Elaina* curls up at one end of the sofa in her living room, as she invites me to have a seat at the other end. The petite 30 year-old has short cropped hair, an engaging smile and a radiant glow about her. She launches right into the story of her path from prison to where she is now.
"The few people I've told about being in prison – they're like, 'WHAT?' I guess they have some picture in their head of prison inmates," she says, shrugging. "So maybe I don't fit their picture."
Her latest stint at the Lancaster County Prison was her third incarceration. "This time around, it was a mental change for me," Elaina explains. "I finally realized I didn't want that kind of life again." . . .
"That kind of life" refers to the years she spent struggling to overcome a serious alcohol addiction. "I was a stay-at-home mom, and my five children were my whole life. My husband was very controlling. He wouldn't allow me to work outside the home. I was totally dependent on him, and I always felt 'less than.' I just took care of the house and the kids. Alcohol became my outlet," she explains, adding that during the last five years, her drinking "got really bad."
She chose to leave her marriage, to try to get sober. She tried rehab, then intensive outpatient treatment, but she says, "I kept messing up." She wanted desperately to be with her children, but with nowhere to live and no means to support herself, she was denied even basic visitation rights.
"Things went from bad to worse," she says. She bounced around, living with one friend after another, and finally wound up homeless, at the Water Street Mission. Several DUI's and a retail theft charge landed her in prison a few times. She describes the nine months she spent last year in Lancaster County Prison as "a turning point" that helped her to see "where my life was headed without intervention. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to not end up back in there and I fought for that to become true." She started forging a new path for herself, with support from key people along the way.
"Karen White (a chaplain at the prison) was a huge help – I had a lot of counseling and conversations with her," Elaina explains.
Todd Blankenstein worked with Elaina at Lancaster County CareerLink to access employment resources. Though she had a high school diploma, she'd never held a job. "I was starting from nothing," she says. She completed rigorous work skills assessments and trainings to obtain a Ready2Work certification, then completed Customer Service and Office Procedures courses.
"It was the first time I saw myself as capable of doing something to support myself and, eventually, to be with my kids again," she says.
Blankenstein saw Elaina's work ethic and determination, and became an advocate for her. He helped her to get professional clothing for job interviews through the Lancaster County Council of Churches. He and Elaina's PO, Grace Seda, personally took Elaina to job interviews.
Blankenstein explains, "It's very difficult for ex-offenders to obtain employment by just filling out applications on-line. Personal face-to-face contact with employers is key. It's a lot harder to reject a person face to face than rejecting them on-line because of a prior record." He adds, "Employers seem to like the support system we can provide."
Elaina secured a job two weeks before she was due to be released from prison. But she still had nowhere to live. Her PO told her about the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization (RMO) program.
The RMO is a collaborative effort between the Lancaster County Prison, social service agencies, Probation & Parole, CareerLink, churches and others to improve community safety by helping people transitioning out of the Lancaster County Prison to become productive citizens and remain crime-free.
"I knew nothing about the RMO, but I was terrified," Elaina says. "I knew I needed some structure, but I also knew I needed to be able to make some decisions for myself."
Through the RMO, Elaina got housing at the Transitional Living Center and she was released from prison in early February, 2011. Carissa Irwin, a social worker at TLC, was Elaina's RMO case manager.
"I was really impressed with Elaina from the very beginning," Irwin says. "We only had one room available for her – and it was one of the least desirable rooms at TLC: small, dingy, with no window. But we showed it to her, and she was just so appreciative."
Irwin sat down with Elaina to lay out a goal plan. Elaina set a goal of being out of TLC and into her own place by the first of July, last year. She immediately began saving money from every paycheck at her new job to put toward that goal. She also started intensive addictions counseling and treatment through the Lancaster Freedom Center.
Irwin observes, "Every time Elaina met with me, she had things checked off on her goal plan. She's very hardworking and very honest about mistakes she's made in the past. She seemed so ready to move forward. She doesn't deny what she did was wrong and she doesn't blame anyone for her mistakes. She just says, 'This is what I did and this is what I want for myself going forward.'"
To help Elaina reach her goal to find permanent housing where she could have regular visits with her children, Irwin contacted landlords and rental agents she thought would be open to working with Elaina. One rental agent was so impressed after meeting Elaina that the agent advocated with her company to rent an apartment to Elaina, despite a company policy not to accept tenants with criminal records. Elaina moved into her own apartment in early July. A church furniture bank helped her to furnish it. A caseworker at Tabor Community Services helped her craft a budget to manage her finances.
She was eventually promoted to a management position where she works. "I'm really hoping to keep moving forward in a career with them," she says enthusiastically. "I love my coworkers, my manager and my company."
She shakes her head. "All of these people have been my saving grace . . . I've had to work my butt off, but it was also people willing to look at what I'm doing now, and not just look at my history - people willing to take a risk on me."
Once she had her own place, Elaina set another goal to get regular visits with her children. "I really, really want to get a strong bond back with my kids and have a good relationship with them. I know the older ones are really resentful because of what I did." She is quiet for a long moment. "I just have to stay upbeat and keep moving forward. I've always been strong and had energy to do things. Before, I put all that energy to bad uses. But now, I'm channeling it to good things in life. I'm trying to make a new path for myself."
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