At first glance, nothing unusual stands out about Karen Hill teaching a self-help class or Cheryl Thomas styling hair on 14th Street NW or Bernadette Gross directing a family investment center. No sign of their pain. No clue of what came before.
But all three women once were homeless, struggling mightily for years with addiction or mental illness. They--and three others--were honored last week by the N Street Village for courage and persistence in reclaiming their lives.
"They are recovered. They are survivors," said Ann L. Bodnyk, executive director of the N Street Village, founded 26 years ago as an oasis for homeless and poor women. "And their accomplishments are being celebrated."
The N Street Village, in the 1300 block of N Street NW, was founded by Luther Place Memorial Church across the street and provides emergency shelter, meals, housing and residential addiction recovery. The 600 or so women drawn to the N Street Village by word of mouth have long been unable to function, overpowered by drugs and hopelessness.
The six recipients of the Erna and John Steinbruck awards, named for the founders of the N Street Village, credit the nurturing environment of N Street for turning around their lives. More than providing emergency services, the village staff members work to make their facility a home, family and community for women struggling to heal.
"N Street was the first time I didn't have to worry about food, shelter and clothing," Gross said. "I could just heal and think about what to do with my life."
The village, off Thomas Circle, includes the Harriet Tubman and Sarah's House residential addiction-recovery programs, the Luther Place Night Shelter, Eden House apartments and Bethany Women's Center, where women come for meals, showers and shelter. Nearly all the $1.2 million budget comes from private donations.
For Gross, drugs were how she coped with raising two children while on welfare and haunted by a childhood of abuse. She was addicted for 20 years. Nine years ago, Gross was arrested on drug possession charges and wound up spending two years in prison. She had no place to live when she was released. A call to a shelter led her to N Street, where she stayed about a year.
Last year, Gross became director of the family investment center of the Urban Family University, which helps families in public housing move toward self-sufficiency. She also is on the N Street Village's board of directors.
Janice Grady started using drugs at 24 to deal with the sadness of her life. "I had to do drugs to feel better because I wanted to kill myself," Grady said. "Inside, I was a wreck."
But she always knew something was wrong beyond addiction. Twenty years later, she was diagnosed as manic-depressive at St. Elizabeths Hospital and referred to N Street. "Coming here was the beginning of my beginning," Grady said.
Traditional drug treatment programs hadn't worked. "I had all these defenses from the drug world, and I always found a way to wiggle out of the program," Grady said. What she needed besides treatment, Grady said, was the emotional support from other women that N Street provided. "I had to learn to emotionally open up. I had always wanted hugs and didn't get them." In May, she graduated from Catholic University and began work at Community Connections, a mental health group where she was once a client.
After Thomas was put out of a traditional treatment program, she came to N Street, attended cosmetology school and received her license. A stylist at Eric's Salon, Thomas is engaged and looking for a new home.
Hill was working for the federal government when she began falling apart, mentally and physically. She was in and out of the hospital 13 times over 10 years for a back injury. To mask the pain, she drank--even at work--and became hooked on pain medication. She soon lost her job and the place where she was living. "I physically wasn't able to take care of myself," Hill said. "I was at the end of the road. I couldn't figure a way out. As a woman said at my first [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Last year, Hill received a mental health degree from Montgomery County College. An intern now at the Veterans Administration Hospital, she is trying to become a certified addictions counselor. Hill, who also credits her newfound spiritual life, teaches about substance abuse and recently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia.
Saundra Wills-Jones was kicked out of N Street Village in the early 1990s because she was too disruptive. For the next few years, she lived in various shelters and medicated herself with vodka.
"I had to have at least a half-pint of vodka a day." said Wills-Jones. "I didn't see anything wrong with me. It was everyone else. I was hardheaded, stubborn and angry. I mostly hung out on the streets, panhandling and making the rounds to different shelters." She finally came back to N Street and then checked herself into a hospital for treatment. She will begin attending UDC in the spring.
Verneice Green stopped trusting people after she was molested by a neighborhood boy when she was 10. For 14 years, she drank heavily and used crack and heroin. She moved from shelter to shelter, her two daughters in tow. "I used my children to panhandle because I could get more money with them," she said. After a year and a half at N Street, she completed a computer course and began volunteering at Bread for the City, where she now works full time as the organization's Southeast site coordinator. She also owns her home and is raising three children.
"N Street Village basically gave me a life," Green said. "We each had a lot of growing up to do. And we did it here."