This article, which appeared in two parts and features Coram Deo, an organization that is a participant in the Urban Alliance network, originally ran in The New Britain Herald on June 1 and 2, 2013. Written by Lisa Backhus, New Britain Herald Staff Writer and reprinted with permission.
Theresa Leonard can recall a time when she hated the hustle and bustle of rush hour as she worked her street corner.
“I was prostituting. I’d see people going to work in the morning and I’d hate them. I wanted to be the one going to work. Now I am.”
In her office as a case manager with Coram Deo, a non-profit organization dedicated to giving women the chance to become substance-free and productive, Leonard, 41, shows up at work every day to “plant the seed” that the agency’s executive director sowed for her five years ago.
Her typical day includes meeting with women recently released on parole or who need help to deal with substance-abuse issues and need to be directed to resources for treatment, housing and food. It is the type of work and dedication to getting her life in order that prompted Jodi Davis, the same executive director who allowed her to enter Coram Deo five years ago, to nominate Leonard for recognition during the YWCA 2013 Women in Leadership luncheon celebrating extraordinary women in Central Connecticut two weeks ago.
“She’s such a different woman today than she was five years ago,” Davis said. “Back then she was homeless, hopeless. Like many women, she was counting the days when she was in prison to get out, and counting the days when she was out on when she would go back to prison. When she got out the last time, she was feeling differently, and finding hope, but the reality of never having lived another way was difficult. Many times the only thing she had was her faith in God.”
Freshly released from prison in 2008, Leonard had no place to go and no way to maintain sobriety or get her life together.
She recalled what would come to be a defining moment in 2008 when a corrections officer, who had seen her come back to prison time and time again, made a comment about the facility being “her home” and telling her she would be back.
“Since 1994, when I was diagnosed with H.I.V., every decision I made was based on I’m dying,” she said. “By 2008, I was existing. I accepted that I was living in a corrections facility and this was all my life was going to be.”
She had been busted countless times for drugs and on other charges, spending most of her adult life in and out of jail.
She had dabbled in drugs but started seriously using crack at 19. She was an addict within a month, she said. The introduction of alcohol while in Germany with her ex-husband created “instant unmanageability” in a life punctuated by stays in psychiatric hospitals as a child.
Part Two: New Britain case worker recognized for work with women with substance abuse issues
There was a time five years ago when Jodi Davis wasn’t sure if the woman she had offered a bed and a chance to regain control of her life would stick around long enough to even like her.
As the executive director of Coram Deo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women with substance-abuse issues, Davis told Theresa Leonard, who had just been released from prison, that she had a bed and a way to deal with getting sober and shaping a new life.
“She didn’t even like me back then,” Davis said. “She didn’t like the fact that I made her go to a 12-step program and she felt like I didn’t like her. When I asked her about it, she realized that there were a lot of people that she felt didn’t like her. The only thing that she knew was that God had brought her to this place at this time. When she would want to leave, I’d say, ‘Did God give you permission to leave?’ and she’d say, ‘That’s different.’ But she did stay.”
It was a chance that led Leonard to be recognized by the YWCA a few weeks go and become a formidable force in helping other women to reshape their lives.
When Leonard entered Coram Deo, which means “in the presence of God,” in 2008 she was required to attend 90 12-step recovery meetings in 90 days. It gave her a view of life she hadn’t seen before. “It got me to see outside a prison cell,” she said. “Even to this day when I see someone get their coin for 30 years of sobriety, I say what does that feel like? What I do know is that it’s possible, I didn’t know that before.”
She stayed for two years at Coram Deo, eventually working as a volunteer case manager setting women up with food stamps, clothing and the means to stay sober and engage in a productive life.
“The system is designed to recycle, not rehabilitate,” she said. “The same thing with rehab. You go to rehab, you get out. You have no place to go, you revert right back to the same behaviors.”
Leonard makes it clear that the transitional housing is a place to sleep and find the resources that lead to a better life. Women are encouraged to leave the house each day, volunteer, learn skills, find a job. “This isn’t going to be the most productive part of your day being here,” she said.
The organization runs five transitional houses in the Central Connecticut area for 45 clients, all of whom have substance-abuse problems that have radically affected their lives. Some are on parole or were recommended by the court system. Others come in voluntarily — as Leonard did — after repeating the cycle of sobriety and substance abuse for decades.
She was asked to come on the payroll as a full-time case worker two years ago. Her office is in the same house where she spent her first six months learning the skills to stay sober and reinvent her life.
She is so effective at the job that she was honored for her accomplishments at the YWCA’s Women in Leadership Luncheon May 15. Davis nominated her for the recognition.
“The fact that she is an amazing case worker and an amazing woman was enough to make me nominate her,” Davis said. “But more importantly, now I know she loves me and is able to love other people.”
Dealing with the reality that many of the women she helps will relapse makes it a “bumpy” and “heartbreaking field,” Leonard said. But she understands the power of her message. “When I do this, I don’t do it because I want to get this woman sober, I want to plant a seed,” she said.
Every year for the past three, Leonard has treated herself to Red Sox tickets at Fenway Park just to cement the understanding that watching her favorite baseball team live was far better than viewing the game from a prison television.
This year, she’ll see the Red Sox in Florida when she vacations with her adult son who was 3 when he was given over to the custody of her ex-husband 20 years ago.
“Recovery is the hardest thing I have ever done, but the rewards are unimaginable,” she said. “These are things I never dreamed were possible. I can do the impossible.”
For more information on the Coram Deo Transitional Living Program, call (860) 348-3486.