Women’s Residence grad is picture of redemption

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The new Virginia and David Baldwin Women’s Residence will open its doors to 15 women on Jan. 29. Another 35 women will be welcomed in the weeks after to the all-new facility.

The home as a new car sort of smell. The carpet is fresh and spotless, counters and cabinets un-scuffed and the furniture barely sat in. The new facility replaces two old homes that previously sat on the lot at 814 Fourth Avenue North and provides beds for thirty extra women.

And that means one very special opportunity for one of the program’s graduates.

Monica Smith entered the Women’s Residence through the St. Petersburg Free Clinic after years of hard living. She had been in and out of jail for years. She was homeless. She lost custody of her kids. Her own mother wouldn’t even let her in.

Smith hit what many would describe as rock bottom years ago. Now she serves as the new center’s on-site residential manager and as a graduate of the program.

“I’ve always chose bad because that’s all I knew,” Smith said.

Smith has been sober for nearly three years now, but it wasn’t always that way. Smith described a feeling many people who have never walked a day in an addicts shoes understand – guilt.

“One of the reasons I turned to drugs and alcohol was to get away from the guilt of all of that neglect,” Smith said referring to losing her kids and family.

In jail it was different. There she couldn’t turn to a vice to take away the bad feelings. She had to suffer through them, process them and even learn from them. Over and over she would go through that process, but it took her a long time to finally accept help.

Smith was put into a prison diversion program facilitated through Goodwill. Though she finally consented to treatment, she really one had two choices – Goodwill or prison.

“When they chose for me. This is what you do or you go to prison I was like, OK, let me give this a shot,” Smith said.

Smith’s story is a perfect representation of why the Women’s Residence is a beacon of hope for St. Pete women in crisis. The Goodwill program, and others like it, serve as immediate sources for women like Smith. They provide the very first steps, but stop short of teaching women how to reintegrate into a self-sufficient life.

The Women’s Residence takes those who have already established some level of sobriety. They need to be at a point where they are able to learn a trade, find a job and establish enough stability for independent living.

And they’re given all the resources to do it.

“It’s different from any other program I’ve been through,” Smith said. “The women that would come in and encourage you and tell you, ‘you now what, it’s OK’ and mentor you into confidence…”

She was referring to volunteers who come in and spend time with the women in the program. They talk in a no-judgment atmosphere about goals, they share stories and they lift each other up.

“I hadn’t had that love in so long. I didn’t have to do anything for it, just continue doing the right thing,” Smith said.

Now she will live in a cozy corner apartment in a 50-bed facility making sure women who are walking in her old shoes are able to overcome what she has. Her unit has a twin size bed under a bright window with a full-sized fridge and small kitchenette.

She’ll be able to visit her kids on the weekend and begin saving for her own home so she can eventually spend more time with her kids. Smith’s is the perfect success story for a facility beginning a new chapter.

The new building features ten double occupancy rooms with welcoming, soft colors decorating each. Upstairs are 30 single occupancy rooms. The girls will have access to laptops and Wi-Fi to search for jobs or take online classes. Printers will be available upstairs and down to print necessary documents.

A training room is available for various outside groups to come and offer things like interview skills training or to teach the girls how to dress for success. There’s a small boutique with donated clothing items so women will have access to nice clothes.

The kitchen has enough cabinets for each resident to have their own and a walk-in refrigerator big enough for everyone to share. A dining room shares a removable wall with a large living room where girls can get to know one another and learn from each other.

Even still empty, the new residence is a beacon of hope for 50-girls at a time.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.