About Esther Residence

Slowly and surely, women get back on feet thanks to sister-run program

Sisters Joanne Roy, Simone Janelle and Lucille Gardner, nuns of the Good Shepherd Sisters, run the Esther Residence, a residential home for women released from incarceration, in Saco. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) SACO – For 10 years, the Esther Residence has been helping women who have been incarcerated get back on their feet.

But, Sister Joanne Roy said, Esther Residents can only help so many at a time, and there is a need for other area programs to also provide troubled women with a safe and supportive place to live and the resources to aid them with recovery and self-empowerment.

The Esther Residence is a program of Good Shepherd Sisters that opened in July 2006. When Good Shepherd Sisters began a strategic planning process 13 years ago, Roy said the Sisters decided to sell a large property they owned at Bay View Beach and open the transitional program for recently incarcerated women.

To help establish routines and responsibility, the women at Esther Residence are given points for accomplishing tasks such as making it to meetings and completing household chores. Once a week, they may redeem points to purchase items from a “store” of donated items. Jane, Joan, Sue and Mary “shop” for items. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) “It was why we were founded as the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec over 150 years ago – to help women coming out of jail,” Roy said.

The women who live there, however, say the residence is more than a home: It teaches them the basic skills for living and in some cases even saved their lives.

Resident Mary said she has learned skills such as budgeting, how to pay bills and establishing routines that have helped her recover from drug addiction.

Jane checks out items donated to the Esther Residence. The women who live there, who are returning to civilian life after incarceration, may redeem points they earn for fulfilling responsibilities in exchange for items. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) “I just tore through people’s lives,” Mary said. “Really honestly, the biggest thing is the responsibility I’ve learned. I have responsibilities, a job. I have health insurance. I have a nice phone that I pay for. I can go out and eat with friends on the weekend.

“I’ve just learned to have a normal life and I’m not lying, stealing and cheating … I talk to my family, which is new. I’m paying my taxes, paying off my student loans. I’m working on myself, which you don’t have time to do when you’re trying to get the next $20 for drugs.”

After nine years in prison, Sue was admitted to Esther Residence in August last year. Sue will move into her own apartment next month, and said she had never lived independently before moving into Esther Residence.

“I was a drug addict and alcoholic and it’s chaos all the time when you’re an addict,” Sue said. “I was in an abusive relationship and getting sent to prison saved my life. It changed all my surroundings … I was in a co-dependent relationship. I never had to pay bills, never knew how to be responsible.”

Joan said if it weren’t for Esther Residence, she would have ended up back on the streets, using drugs and then back in jail.

“I had places I could have gone, but they wouldn’t be safe,” she said, “and as much as I wanted to get high …”

Joan said she has seen it time and time again, where women leave prison and end up in the same environments and situations that put them there in the first place. Joan said she got out of prison on FMI

A local resident donated a homemade quilt to Esther Residence, which will be raffled off to raise money for the program. The winner will be randomly picked on March 23, at a party where residents will cook food for their supporters. To purchase a raffle ticket or to donate money or items to the house, email or call 283- 0323. Checks may also be mailed to Esther Residence, PO Box 296, Saco, ME 04072 a Saturday, the same day another inmate was released, and by Tuesday, the other woman had died of an overdose.

Mary said she was homeless at one point and trying to recover from addiction, but couldn’t stop using drugs if she didn’t have safe housing.

“I would go to counseling three or four times a week, but would go home to a drug house. That’s where I was staying,” Mary said. “It makes it so much easier to recover if you have a safe place to come to. I tried to get clean for so long.”

Jean said living in Esther Residence has helped her to realize her true identity.

“You finally have your inside to match your outside,” Jean said. “For so long, you put on a facade, you don’t feel comfortable in your skin. I finally felt that feeling of serenity for the first time in 16 years the other day. To feel that peace is amazing.”

Mary said unless a woman is pregnant or has good health insurance, there are not many resources to help them to recover from addiction.

“Most addicts don’t have insurance,” she said.

Roy said having a safe place to be sober is a necessary component of a woman’s path to recovery. Roy said there is a waiting list to get into Esther Residence and there likely won’t be an opening for at least several months.

Jean said the sisters don’t rush the women, and give them ample time to rebuild their lives; residents may stay for a year or sometimes longer.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why haven’t you left?’ It’s not mandated to be here,” Jean said. “But I still have work to do. I’m working on getting my ducks in a row but there are still ducks missing. For years, I didn’t cook for myself, I didn’t shower for weeks. I’m definitely extremely fortunate to be here.”

Mary said the structure the sisters provide helped her focus on changing her behavior.

“If I had immediate freedom, well that doesn’t really work for me,” Mary said. “I had to stay in the house for two weeks, get my things together.

“It’s a safe place with unconditional love and support. Their support definitely changed my old manipulative behaviors. It’s hard to lie and cheat.”

Jane said if it weren’t for Esther Residence, she would have been calling the prison asking to return.

“I had so much anxiety, I had been locked up for four years,” she said. “It’s overwhelming when you do get out.”

Sister Lucille Gardner said the need for housing and addiction recovery services is so great, that the challenging part for her is sifting through all the applicants and determining who has the greatest need to be admitted into the home.

Joan said she had her first home visit in years with her daughter because she finally had a safe home.

“This has definitely fixed some family relationships for me,” added Mary.

Jean said living in an all-women environment is “very important,” because it allows them to bring up any issues.

“I tend to put up a wall when I see people, and I tend to judge,” Jean said. “It’s something I need to work on.”

Living at Esther Residence, she said, has helped her open up and share with others.

Jean said one of the important steps to recovery is being able to “carry a message to a person that still suffers.”

“I was in that spot, too,” she said. “Everyone said I was going to keep doing drugs. Now I have a job.”

Jane said she tried living in a co-ed residential program, but it just reinforced her co-dependencies.

“It was just a flophouse,” she said.

Roy said the women who live there develop a sense of community and do group activities together.

“It’s like a family here,” she said.

Jean said, “We have good sober fun. Who would’ve thought that mini-golfing, let alone when you’re not high and the ball’s going everywhere, was so much fun.”

The women also go to see plays together in Portland or even just play games together in the house.

“They teach us a lot about not being selfish, and giving back,” Jean said. “As an addict, it’s all about being selfish.”

Mary said the women try to educate others about addiction, including speaking about the topic at colleges such as University of New England and Bowdoin College. The women also regularly write letters and send holiday cards to inmates who are still incarcerated.

Jean said that she has a 3-year-old daughter and she can proudly say now that she has been sober for half of her child’s life.

Roy told the women at a house meeting this week, “I really admire you. We all know how difficult it is.”

Gardner said there is a lot of stigma that comes with addiction, which can also make it hard for women to reassimilate into society.

“People think, well they’re an addict, why don’t they just stop?” Gardner said. “A lot of people don’t understand how difficult it is.”

Mary said if she were to give another addict advice, the first thing she would tell them is to get help, from anyone.

Joan said, “If you put in as much work to get help as you did getting high, you would get better.”

“Call anyone,” Jean said. “There are people who will help.”

To help the Esther Residence pay for expenses, a local resident recently donated a quilt she made, so it could be raffled off. Roy said Good Shepherd Parish has been very supportive, allowing the women to sell raffle tickets at services. The women will hold a party at the house on March 23, when they will cook for guests and the quilt will be raffled off.

“People were just throwing money at us,” Mary said. “They didn’t even want a raffle ticket.”

Roy said the home is always accepting donations, including donations of furniture and household items to help women who are finally able to move into their own home.

To find out how to contribute to the Esther Residence, contact the Sisters at estherres@gwi.netor (207)-283-0323

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