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A symbol of HOPE

Greenbrier woman starts Beacon project for women in prison

By By Lisa H. Armstrong CONTRIBUTING WRITER

This article was published July 26, 2007 at 1:59 a.m.

— What started as a part of grieving for a lost loved one has become a part-time job for one woman connected to the Beacon Community Project for Women.

Beacon, as it is called by those closest to it, is largely the brainchild of Camille LaGrossa of Greenbrier. LaGrossa started volunteering five years ago as a lay chaplain at the Faulkner County Jail. The inspiration for her service came after her sister's death in 1999. As a result, LaGrossa started thinking about what she had to offer back to the community.

She began attending St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway and learned of their jail ministry.

"It was like someone had turned on a light," Lagrossa said. "There was a compelling force that I just had to be inside the jail helping others." The inspiration for what is now Beacon Community Project was born after an organizer declared, "We need to be like a beacon- a shining light for those who are in need."

It was during that time that LaGrossa also met Tangela Cullum. A drug addict since age 14, Tangela had been in and out of prison, but had not given up hope of finding a way to turn her life around. "I was so uplifted by the love and support of the women who mentored me. Even when I ended up going back to prison, they didn't judge me," she said.

Because of these and other statistics, women's support groups with a spiritual component were begun in 2002 at the Faulkner County Jail. "Those women needed something to help them, and at that time, there was nothing," LaGrossa said.

After feeling that the faith-based approach was not welcome at the jail, LaGrossa decided to change directions. She contacted the head of the Arkansas Department of Correction to inquire about providing encouragement to women at the newly built McPherson facility in Newport. The answer was a resounding "yes."

A typical history for an incarcerated woman in the 21st century often includes being introduced to drug use as a preteen, as well as a history of mental or sexual abuse, LaGrossa said. "They never got to be children," saidCullum. Additionally, less than half have a high school diploma. But the biggest challenge is serious struggles against alcoholism and drug abuse, which leads to recidivism rates as high as 60-70 percent, LaGrossa said.

Many of the women who are currently in prison are there because of issues related to drugs. What LaGrossa and others felt was needed was the ability to help women like Tangela learn how to create a new life, so they began offering sessions on relaxation, meditation, and even labyrinth walks and yoga. "Yoga didn't work well for the men who were incarcerated, but the women seemed to love it," Lagrossa said.

Typical experiences with jail and prison include a long wait in jail before formal sentencing is implemented, with a lag sometimes as long as six to nine months. The jail term is then followed by the proscribed prison sentence. However, even the official release for good behavior is often more complicated than may at first be imagined. "Women stay in prison an extra three to six months sometimes, because they don't have a parole plan," Cullum said.

Tangela was one of the first women to be mentored through the Beacon Project to be put on parole, or "paroled out." She said she was given $100 in cash, and a bus ticket, and expected to cope and transition on her own. Without the aforementioned parole plan, the "revolving door" syndrome back into jail re-emerges, Cullum said.

Through Beacon, part of a potential parole plan and additional support for formerly incarcerated women includes Monday night support groups at Peace Lutheran Church, along with therapy groups called Moral Reconation Therapy, and other meetings, said LaGrossa. There is alsocoaching and mentoring. A book study club recently completed a workbook called Life Lessons by physician and scientist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, LaGrossa said.

Another project involves rehabilitating a building donated to the Beacon Project. The building, a quansett hut, will be used as a permanent facility to help provide much-needed housing and other services for women in transition, LaGrossa said.

"They can't really go back to their homes," Cullum said. "They have so many emotions and need a safe place to role-play and work out their fears and their anger, "she said. Programs such as Moral Reconation Therapy, meditation and relaxation will also be presented at the new center, she said.

Direct involvement can also take the form of volunteering through the Beacon Project's Fresh Start program, a mentoring program that requires writing letters or postcards to incarcerated women approximately one time per week. "In prison, they [the women] need all the support they can get. Sometimes these letters or postcards are the only things that they have to look forward to all week," she said.

"These are the forgotten children," LaGrossa said. There are halfway houses and rehabilitation centers in larger areas like Pulaski and Pope counties , but there has really be nothing to assist thesewomen in the Faulkner County area until now."

Plus there is the stigma and shame of drug use. "These women have been on drugs so long that they get the mentality of once an addict, always an addict," Cullum said. "Once they see that someone is willing to invest in your life like Beacon did for me, it makes all the difference in the world," she said. "This is a way for them to restart their lives."

LaGrossa echoed this sentiment, but also sees the Beacon program from a broader perspective. "We want to empower women body, mind and soul, to provide tools that they can use in their everyday life," she said.

Cullum said, "Through Beacon's love, encouragement and support, I hope to see other women like me begin the process of healing."

She is taking her own advice by assisting others who have traveled the rocky road from drug abuse and imprisonment. She is working at Bethlehem House, a homeless shelter in Conway, and has agreed to help provide care and support for others like her for the next several months, LaGrossa said.

Beacon is a nonprofit organization. Partners include St. Peter's Episcopal, Peace Lutheran, and Cornerstone Bible churches, all of Conway, along with Cedar Rock Yoga, Gail and Margie Jones, the Faulkner County Supporters of Sustainable Communities, the McPherson Women's facility in Newport and the Arkansas Department of Community Correction Parole Office in Faulkner County.

To learn more about the Beacon Community Project for Women, call (501) 733-9146 or e-mail clagrossa@cyberback. com, or go to the Web site, www.beaconcommunityproject.org.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 75 on 07/26/2007

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