In Saroyal Booker’s life, it seemed it was one thing after the next.
At age 10, it was her single mother, addicted to drugs and unable to care for her. So Booker was sent to live with a grandmother in a home already jam-packed with other family members.
At 16, it was Booker herself. Pregnant, she quit school. By 19, she was a wife; by 25, divorced; and by 28, dancing in strip clubs. In the years that followed, she would give birth to three more children — one of whom died as a toddler — and become the caregiver for her terminally ill mother.
Booker turned to ecstasy for respite. That was before she moved on to crack cocaine, igniting an addiction that raged for 15 years.
Three felony convictions for drug-related offenses earned her seven years behind bars. Twice, the Hampton, Va., native was released on probation — moving in with family members and trying to eke out a living on her own. Twice she would fail.
“You eat too many eggs out of someone else’s fridge or come home too late at night, and it’s a problem,” she says. “It put me out on the streets, so I’d do what’s comfortable to support myself. And then I’m back in jail again.”
This time around, though, Booker is working toward a different ending. In February, Booker, 43, was released from prison, and instead of crowding into a relative’s home, she moved into a small room of her own in a comfy 100-year-old Alexandria cottage owned by the nonprofit Friends of Guest House.
The 26-bed program takes in post-incarceration women and offers them a home for six months, along with a safe and supportive environment, as they learn the skills they need to be self-sufficient.
It is distinctive among reentry efforts because it’s one of a handful of programs nationwide that is women-specific, residential and — although Guest House offers recovery support among its many therapeutic elements — doesn’t focus on addiction at its core. That may be why the nonprofit receives more than 400 applications a year from Virginia, Maryland and the District for its few beds.
And it may be why it has been successful in helping women transition to a life beyond prison, says Kari Galloway, who has served as the program’s executive director for 14 years.
On average, about 3 in 10 people return to prison after two years, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts of federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. And though reentry support isn’t mandatory or often even prescribed upon release, research indicates that it’s key to reducing recidivism.
“Only about 10 percent of our former clients return to prison within two years of successfully completing our program,” Galloway said. “We’re super-proud of that.”
Booker called the program a “lifesaver.”
“It’s do or die at this point” she added. “I needed to learn how to take control of my life — or be lost again.”
At Guest House, each woman is provided with an individualized reentry plan that includes work and life development skills, such as computer literacy and workplace etiquette, optional GED-tutoring, and referrals for jobs and legal assistance.
Many clients have been mired in substance abuse and usually have sustained some chronic jabs to their physical, dental and mental well-being, so access to health care is crucial. “Almost all have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect and have never received therapy for any of their issues,” Galloway said.
During their first weeks, the women learn the rules of the house and attend classes and health and probation appointments. They digest the bus schedule and work on community service. Once they’ve completed 20 hours of volunteer work, they’re encouraged to pursue an educational program or employment.
Guest House, which has been in operation for 45 years and has served close to 4,000 women, has 32 full- and part-time staff members who serve as the coaches in two residences. (The second home is in an Alexandria apartment complex.) They work to keep “the women on track, picking them up when they suffer setbacks and helping them move forward toward the goals they’ve created together,” Galloway said.
Many of the women deal with impulse-control challenges, Galloway said, so the program is set up to help them build skills to combat this. They plan their schedules a week in advance so that they’re keeping track of their time, budget and commitments early. “This is about accountability and thinking through to consequences: learning to take a step back from doing what you want to do whenever you want to do it,” Galloway said.
There is a robust volunteer force — some 150 people who do yardwork and fix leaky faucets, take the women grocery shopping, provide comfort at doctors’ appointments, teach knitting, and discuss the news during sessions known as “coffee and current events.” They mentor the women, some of whom have never had the kind of parent or friend who might serve as a sounding board for problems or help them celebrate successes.
They also press the women to open themselves to new experiences.
“We get a lot of pushback from our clients saying they don’t want to do something, when they’ve never even done it,” Galloway said. Climb the stands to watch a baseball game, for example. Or sit quietly on a mat to practice yoga. “We have women who grew up in this area who’ve never been to a museum,” she said. “We offer them exposure so that they can have a new way of looking at things, maybe finding out they’re good at something they didn’t know they were good at and showing them they’re deserving of new ways to learn.”
Women at Guest House participate daily in classes taught by local artists via a nonprofit called Heard, which provides arts programming free of charge to underserved populations in Alexandria and Arlington.
“Our programs are life skills disguised as art, and our clients love them,” said Heard founder Jane Hess Collins, a retired Air Force colonel. “Creating is so important to healing. I see the women improve their conflict-resolution skills through improv, their empathy through writing, and their confidence through visual arts.”
For Brittany Cook, 29, goal-setting, therapy and a voluntary fitness program called Back on My Feet — which requires her to leave her bed three mornings a week at 5:15 — are providing newfound motivation as she seeks a life beyond addiction and incarceration.
About seven years earlier, Cook’s future in Poquoson, Va., had seemed assured. She had been earning a steady living working for her grandmother’s housecleaning business and had completed college prerequisites to begin a hospital radiology program. But she began using heroin with a boyfriend, and, she said, “it brought me down fast,” resulting in four felony charges for possession and grand larceny.
Cook arrived at Friends of Guest House in March and since then has completed her community-service hours — helping at a food-distribution center — and landed a housekeeping job at a hotel. “This is great for now, until I figure out what I want to do for a career,” she said.
“I want to have kids one day when I find the right guy,” she added. “Rebuild my relationship with my family and enjoy the things in my life like I used to, instead of just existing.”
Cook said her family has been supportive.
After years in prison, Booker said, she is learning to live again — the right way. She’s working on the final test section for her GED and has begun training at DC Central Kitchen for a career as a sous chef — a choice she says was inspired by her grandmother, who taught her to cook for a large brood. Booker wants to create a welcoming home for her children and make her grandmother proud.
Her youngest child lives with his father. Her teen daughter lives with a relative. And her oldest son is an adult.
“I want to be successful, but I know that my happiness doesn’t have to come from how much money I have,” she said. “Being at Friends of Guest House is helping me reshape not just the outside of me, but the inside.”