Beginning In the Right Direction - B.I.R.D. Ministries

One summer morning in 2001, Linda Bird got a phone call asking if she’d be willing to go into the Lancaster County Prison and teach a parenting class for women incarcerated there. Linda agreed to do the class, even though she had no idea what to expect.

“It’s embarrassing to admit this,” she recalls, “but I thought I would be seeing women with tattoos and muscles.” Instead, she says, “I found caring, articulate, talented and intelligent women who could have been my sister, my daughter, my best friend. I was so deeply moved by the women and what I experienced at the prison that I kept going back in, week after week.”

That was ten years ago. Linda’s work has continued and expanded significantly since then.

There were 49 women in that first parenting class Linda taught at the prison. As soon as she finished the first class, there were more women, ready to take the next class.

As Linda continued teaching parenting classes, she saw women being released, then coming back into prison a short time later – sometimes after only a few days out of prison, sometimes weeks, sometimes after a few months. As she started talking with the women about what was happening on the outside that kept leading them back to prison, she realized they faced numerous barriers.

“They’re released from the Lancaster County prison at 6:00 in the morning. There’s often no one there to meet them. They have nothing but the clothes on their back. If they went into prison in the summer in a halter top, shorts and flip flops, and they’re being released in the dead of winter – unless someone’s done a clothing exchange for them, they have to go back out in the dead of winter in the same halter top, shorts and flip flops. Often, there is no home or safe place for them to go – so they go back to wherever they were when they got arrested. That often leads to trouble again and they wind up back in prison. It’s a vicious cycle.”

For those women who are fortunate enough to have someone there for them and a place to go, Linda says, “then, the hard work of staying out of prison begins.”

She tallies the list of additional hurdles the women face. “Their criminal record works against them in employment and schooling. Addiction is a huge hurdle that requires lots of intervention, support, counseling and treatment that is not always readily available because of a lack of money to pay for it.”

Then there are the children. Some of the women Linda works with have lost custody of their children and it can be a long, difficult road to even get visitation rights, let alone regain custody. For those who have not lost custody, rebuilding relationships with their children when they leave prison can be one of the most sensitive and heart-wrenching challenges they will face.

Early in her prison work, Linda’s focus was on teaching parenting classes. As the years went by, she expanded beyond parenting, to offering programs that helped women see themselves as worthy human beings. She observes, “I believe one of the biggest struggles the women face is building new healthy supportive relationships. Most of them have no idea what a healthy relationship is or how important they are.”

As her teaching in the prison expanded, Linda and her husband, Joe, created a nonprofit organization called B.I.R.D. Ministries, “providing women who have been in prison the spiritual and practical support to Begin In the Right Direction.”

But Linda felt like there was more for her to do with the women, beyond just teaching classes. As Linda learned more and more about the barriers the women faced when they got out of prison, she prayed, “This is a need, God. We’ve got to do something to help these girls. Nobody even knows they exist. They’re like a lost population, living in the shadows.”

Linda and her husband, Joe, envisioned creating a home for women coming out of prison. A home that would be a place of peace and serenity for them. A place to rebuild their lives. In 2007, the House of Ruth was born. Linda describes House of Ruth as, “a place where women will experience God’s healing love and begin to live beyond their past.”

The B.I.R.D. Ministries website describes the program further: “The House of Ruth is a residence where women in need can find a safe structured Christ centered family environment to love, nurture and encourage them. The home structure will provide a daily routine that includes normal domestic chores and organized activities designed to minister to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the residents. A Resident House Manager provides on-site supervision and accountability.” Women typically live there for 6-8 months, as they work through their transition plan and prepare for life on their own.

Linda is quick to add, “House of Ruth is only part of the equation of what works for the women. Without all our partners in the community we could never accomplish what we do.” Many of those partners are involved in the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization (RMO).

Through those partner agencies, Linda is able to connect the women with the services and supports they need to address their family issues, obtain permanent housing and employment, continue their education, complete drug and alcohol treatment, and establish consistent physical and mental health care.

In the four years since House of Ruth opened, 25 women and five children have found a safe haven there. Linda estimates that, in total, BIRD Ministries has assisted 350-400 women in the past decade with pre-release classes and services, as well as aftercare once they are released from prison.

See this beautiful video about what House of Ruth has meant to some of the women they’ve served over the years.

My next post will share a few stories from Linda about those women, and some of the needs yet to be met for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in Lancaster County, and for continuation of B.I.R.D. Ministries and House of Ruth.

In the meantime, if you’d like an opportunity to see first-hand how B.I.R.D. Ministries is touching the lives of women in Lancaster County, mark your calendars for the 10th Anniversary Celebration & Open House at House of Ruth.

September 25, 2011
2:00 pm -5:00pm
2086 New Danville Pike
Lancaster, Pa.
Guest Speaker: “Auntie” Anne Beiler

RELATED ARTICLES

Children of Incarcerated Parents Fact Sheet (from Annie E. Casey Foundation)

What About The Children? (from melaniegsnyder.com)

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa restorative justice peace criminal justice rmo

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