After 25 years of helping women resurrect their lives after spending time in prison, it would have only made sense for Diane Gaines to settle into retirement, satisfied with a job well done. But when Gaines, a 1997 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leader, realized that no one was coming forward to fill her shoes, she chose a tougher path.
“When we lost our funding for the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center (WORC) program, I knew we had helped a great many women [more than 1,000] here in Hempstead, Long Island and the surrounding areas, but I never expected the outpouring of requests from the community, the women’s bar association, even judges for us to find some way to re-open the program,” Gaines explains.
The push to revive WORC was fueled by recognition—among people who had come to know WORC graduates—of the program’s amazing ability to help women discover the road to healthy, happy, high-functioning lives.
“Roughly 50 percent of the women who come to WORC do not have high school diplomas, so we often help them obtain their GEDs,” Gaines says, but that’s just a small part of the program. “Many of them have very low self-esteem and have endured sexual or physical abuse. These are women who have not felt empowered to do positive things on their own. We teach life skills, financial literacy, job skills, vocational training, as well as classes on nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention and staying healthy.”
While Gaines’ motivation clearly comes from the heart, she makes a strong business case for the program. “WORC gives female offenders the opportunity to pay their debt to society without being incarcerated, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars. In addition, most of the women are mothers,” Gaines explains. “Most of the time, when you lock up a woman, you lock up a family. WORC greatly reduces the need for these children to be placed in foster care and helps families become independent of public assistance.”
The need for programs like WORC is clear at a time when there are more than 1.2 million women in prison or jail in the United States, according to the Women in Prison Project. Statistics reveal that a great many of the women have undiagnosed psychological problems and struggle with addiction and poverty. Yet, WORC’s track record is proof that these women can succeed with support, education and encouragement.
A Second Chance
“Before I came to the program, I had been homeless and a drug user for at least 14 years,” explains Victoria Roberts, a WORC graduate. Like so many women who go to prison, Roberts’ children suffered along with her. “I used drugs during my older son’s entire childhood and my youngest was born addicted. When he was a baby, I was told he would have learning disabilities.”
But that was before Roberts discovered WORC. “When I began attending classes there, I had no idea that I had low self-esteem. No one had ever discussed that with me before or even asked me to be honest about how I really felt about myself. Once I began to really talk about the stresses in my life and how little I liked myself, that’s when I began to change.”
Today, Roberts is a legal assistant in an attorney’s office in Long Island where she and her husband own a home. Her oldest son works with her and her youngest is smart, healthy and now a senior at the State University of New York at Albany. “My kids were able to change their lives, because I changed mine,” says Roberts, who is so proud of her boys that even her email address is “Kaleel’s mom,” a small tribute to her youngest son.
She now sits on WORC’s board of directors and says, “I’m working on my masters in social work right now. When I graduate, I want to be like Ms. Gaines. I want to help women who are returning to the community after incarceration because there was someone there for me.”
Armed with little more than passion, commitment and the help of two volunteers, Gaines was determined to restore the WORC program. She began raising funds two years ago. “I started with family and friends,” Gaines recalls. “Local businesses also contributed, but the faith-based community here in Long Island really helped a great deal. Pastor Young Shik Kim of the Community United Methodist Church in East Norwich invited me to speak to his congregation, as did Pastor Roy Kirton, who operates the Circle of Love prison mentoring program in Copiague. Both speaking engagements resulted in generous donations to the WORC program. The Jamaica, Long Island Missionary Society of the AME Church has also been very generous with financial support and volunteers.”
Her grassroots efforts raised $23,000, enough to get WORC up and running with a volunteer staff. This year, the program was given 501C3 status, but Gaines is still on the road. “I will speak anywhere and go anywhere, if they are interested in our work,” she says.
Her level of commitment would be impressive under any circumstances, but it is even more inspiring when you consider Gaines’ personal challenges. Though she seldom mentions it, she has been confined to a wheelchair and paralyzed for 30 years. Gaines is also a breast cancer survivor and single mom whose daughters are now grown and successful in their own right. She spent her own childhood in a drug-infested neighborhood in Jamaica, N.Y. All that has helped make her a woman with a unique perspective on beating tough odds.
“In meeting Ms. Gaines, just being in her presence and seeing all she has to overcome just to come to work every day, though she never complains, made me realize that I could succeed,” explains Kim Harris, a WORC graduate who turned her life around after a decade of battling addiction and repeated incarcerations.
“I don’t know what my life would be now without WORC. I’ve been clean for 12 years now. I’m the case coordinator/court liaison for the Stoplift/Anger Management Programs of the Educational Assistance Corporation (EAC), a job that developed after Ms. Gaines gave me the opportunity to be the WORC receptionist and then take an EAC internship,” Harris says. “I now mentor women in the new program.”
“I also travel with her sometimes and attend the annual Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader meetings with her. That also inspires me because it gives me the chance to see how professional people work together and assist each other,” Harris adds.
With WORC’s not-for-profit status now established and her volunteers in place, Gaines and her team are determined to succeed. “I feel that more people need to know about us and hear stories like mine,” Roberts says, “because there are women out there drowning in addiction, living with domestic violence and suffering. They just don’t realize that they can change.”
Each year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation selects 10 Community Health Leaders to receive an award. The winners are outstanding and otherwise unrecognized individuals who overcome daunting odds to expand access to health care and social services to underserved populations in communities across the United States. The program aims to elevate the work of these unsung heroes through enhanced recognition, technical assistance and leadership development opportunities.