Gale Sky Edeawo
Gale, known to her friends as "Mama Sky", is the founder of Project Welcome Home, an organization that helps former inmates get established when they come out of prison.
October 12, 2005 - Connect Savannah (GA)
Woman To Woman
Gail Skye Edeawo & Miriam Center Help Empower Local Women That Society Has Forgotten
By Aberjhani Aberjhani
The frequently celebrated triumphs of media mogul Oprah Winfrey and increasing talk of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton becoming the country's first woman president could lead many to think American women at long last have achieved a social, economic, and political status equivalent to American men.
From where Gale Sky Edeawo of Project Welcome Home and Miriam Center of the Daughters of Destiny Center stand, that conclusion would be wrong.
Education, employment, parenting, and housing are issues common to both women and men. However, additional social factors like domestic violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, and health issues continue to place women at a disadvantage.
Take, for example, the fact that some six million women, according to the National Organization for Women and various government agencies, are beaten every year by a husband or boyfriend. Of that number, some 1,500 result in death.
Or consider that sociologists estimate more than one third of all female children suffer physical or sexual abuse. As adolescents, young adults, and more mature women, some 132,000 annually report being raped.
Law enforcement agencies estimate the number of unreported rape cases more than doubles that number.
Such a barrage of physical, psychological, and spiritual violence generates consequences. Sometimes they take the form of drug abuse, or sometimes long years in psychological therapy.
At their most extreme, more and more, they take the form of retaliatory violence that includes "murder in self defense."
As women working to help other women survive debilitating conditions and thrive as healthy productive individuals, Edeawo and Center are local representatives of a growing national movement.
Project Welcome Home
In 1998, Gale Sky Edeawo accepted an invitation from Linda Hill of the Savannah Runaway program to address a group of youth and employ her literacy coaching skills to help them utilize writing as a tool for coping with the frustrations of their lives.
Edeawo discovered that many of their difficulties stemmed less from hardcore delinquency on behalf of the youth themselves than from the fact that many of their parents were incarcerated.
The problem was bad enough when the imprisoned parent was a father no longer able to provide for his family; but it was far worse when the absent parent was a single mother no longer able to shelter, guide, or nurture her children.
In fact, an estimated 200,000 children have mothers in jail and more than a million have incarcerated fathers.
Unfortunately, the number of imprisoned women in the United States has risen steadily since the 1990s. The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates that, on any given day, more than 100,000 women, whether mothers or not, are held in a prison or jail.
Most are there for non-violent property crimes, drug abuse, or theft related to abuse issues. More than half have a history of having been physically or sexually abused. Of those released from jail annually, tens of thousands end up going back.
"In Chatham County," says Edeawo, "the rate of recidivism is 85 percent. And that's way too high." Especially when compared to a national average closer to 68 percent.
Attempting to help break the cycle of children losing their mothers to prison, and women in general losing control of their lives to conditions likely to lead to prison, Edeawo joined a volunteer project to work with women inmates at the Chatham County Sheriff Complex.
The life skills counseling she offered women behind the bars evolved, in January 2001, into an extended referral service called Project Welcome Home for women exiting prison and reentering society.
"Project Welcome Home was actually created in Cell Block 2-C of the Chatham County Jail with the assistance of the female inmates who participated in my life skills class," says Edeawo.
"It was my idea and they said, 'Yes, let's go for it.'"
In addition to moderating forums in which the women were able to express their feelings, she also helped them to improve their communication skills through writing letters, learn to manage anger, recognize different patterns and forms of addiction, and become more aware of relationship dynamics. The program also offered strategies to help women acquire essentials upon their release, including transportation, shelter, and employment.
Even after obtaining these basic necessities, maintaining them could prove overwhelming. Edeawo's role has often become an extended one, with clients seeking her counsel on everything from job interviews to where they should turn in emergency situations.
Her unwavering commitment to them earned her the nickname "Mama Sky."
Among those obstacles women face upon leaving incarceration, Edeawo says housing is the most crucial.
"We don't have any halfway houses for women in Savannah and they usually don't have any money to pay for lodging when they get out. So unless a family member or friend is willing to take them in, they have nowhere to go," says Edeawo.
"A woman who's a former offender is not eligible for low-income housing, or even average housing. If she can finally get some type of housing at all, it's usually in a drug-infested area that's unsafe for her kids, and unsafe for those women who are former addicts," she says.
"Women who can't get shelter end up homeless. Then the same ones I started working with in the jail can become the ones I start working with at the Salvation Army, Interfaith Hospitality Network, Hope House, and many other places because they become destitute."
As if to underscore the significance of Edeawo's work, her client Phyllis Brown paid an unscheduled visit to the Project Welcome Home office during our interview. The 47-year-old Brown met the 59-year-old Edeawo while incarcerated at the Chatham County Sheriff Complex and attending a substance abuse class. She discovered in Edeawo a role model and motivator.
Brown credits Edeawo with motivating her to transform the writing and artwork she did as a hobby in jail into a serious professional goal.
"In jail, I used my art and poetry to make greeting cards for other inmates because I found that what's on the market didn't really address the things we were feeling, or the things we needed to say to our families because of our situation," Brown says.
"Now I'd like to start a line of those kinds of cards. I'm also completing a book of poetry and I've started on an autobiography."
In addition, Brown is studying patient care technology at the Savannah College of Technology. Her determination to leave her past of addiction permanently behind her has allowed her to take on a more supportive role within her family of four adult children and nine grandchildren.
Another client, 36-year-old Joyce Johnson, a mother of five, called during the interview. Johnson was released from a transitional facility in Atlanta in June 2004.
Her story was less inspiring than Brown's because she just received a week's notice to vacate her apartment after falling behind on her rent.
She explains that, "I was paying my rent fine until I fell behind because I got hired for a new job so I quit my old one. After I had quit my old job, the new employer said they did a background check and decided that they couldn't hire me again even though I had already told them about my past before they hired me and before I quit my other job."
In her frustration, Johnson voices a dilemma that virtually every former inmate faces: "A lot of people don't want to give us a chance because they're afraid we're going to steal from them or hurt them some kind'a way, but we have to have some kind of trust because if nobody gives us a chance, then we're basically forced to make the same mistakes we made before."
Edeawo estimates that she has worked with more than 600 women, behind walls and outside of them, through Project Welcome Home. She continues to visit the prison at least once a month and also to assist in group sessions at the Drug Rehabilitation Center. Grants and donations from organizations and individuals have allowed her to acquire an office on Abercorn Street.
In addition to being the founder and director of Project Welcome Home, Edeawo also participates in the Fraternal Order of Police, serves on the board of the Interfaith Hospitality Network Board, on the Regional Youth Detection Center's Advisory Board, and works with many other organizations. She is, moreover, known as much for her literary achievements as she is for her community activism.
Even more than the funding that she says her organization needs, Edeawo maintains that what her clients need is a community more supportive of her efforts. She particularly stresses a critical need for more adult males to serve as mentors to at risk male youth.
"If we don't save the children we're all going to be doomed because without them we have no future," she says.
For information on Project Welcome Home, call 920-9411.
Daughters of Destiny
Every Monday night at Savannah's newly founded Daughters of Destiny Center, founder Miriam Center rings a chime, leads a group of women in prayer, and recites a text intended to strengthen women's self image and general sense of empowerment.
Recently at such a meeting she read a passage from Melody Beattie's Journey to the Heart, encouraging women to exercise greater self-love.
"Women are afraid of loving themselves," says Center. "They're so used to being caretakers that they don't even realize that they have the right to love themselves. That's why they're so co-dependent and want somebody else to give them the love."
Center's quest to help women live more fulfilling lives began in the late 1980s, when at the age of 50 she got in her car and drove solo from Savannah to California. The move was part of a major spiritual rebirth that included the dissolution of a 30-year marriage and closing her successful real estate company.
Although she had lost her oldest son, she raised two others to adulthood and recently become a grandmother, but felt her life remained incomplete. With the establishment of Daughters of Destiny in Los Angeles, she found the missing piece to the puzzle of her existence.
"Although I didn't know it at the time, I was making a life passage which would encompass all women in transition," Center says. "Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, if there was a network for women assisting each other, when their families were unwilling, or were unable to hear and help them."
The powerful significance of what she had stumbled upon became more evident as she interacted with different women in diverse, yet similar, situations. The first Daughters of Destiny meeting was held in the home of a former nightclub performer who had abandoned her career to marry a Hollywood executive, become a mother, then developed agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors).
Another woman had been a college professor who unexpectedly lost her job and became suicidal. Upon joining Center's group, she regained enough self esteem to file and win a suit against her former employer for several million dollars.
As the meetings continued, transferring to Center's home, the issues they addressed expanded until Center found herself confronting battered wives, sexually abused daughters, victims of gender discrimination, women addicts, and others whose lives had been somehow derailed.
The platform provided by Daughters of Destiny, in Center's terms, could help these women heal their wounded souls. In doing so, they could then heal, or more greatly fulfill, their individual lives.
In 1998, she moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where she established another branch of Daughters of Destiny.
Five years later, her spiritual journey brought her back to Savannah. She again started holding meetings in her home.
The location for the meetings changed after Center acquired a small house at 12 E. 41st Street and opened its doors to the public in April. In addition to the weekly Monday night meetings, Daughters of Destiny hosts and promotes women artists, and participates in the monthly First Friday open hoses with the Starland Dairy group.
Center also takes her message of hope and renewal once a week to those undergoing treatment at the Drug Rehabilitation Center.
One artist who has already benefited from the center is Brenda Massie-Yates, who recently relocated to Savannah from New York and set up a studio in the facility.
"I wasn't sure how I was going to go about pursuing my art here," says Massie-Yates, "so this worked out perfectly for me."
While she hopes to see Daughters of Destiny spread to different cities and communities, for the time being Center is content to see the nonprofit organization continue developing in Savannah.
"This is my church, the Church for Women," she says. "I'm a church lady (laughs)."
For more information on Daughters of Destiny, call 663-0894.
Aberjhani is co-author of the award-winning Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry.
September 1, 2004 - SNITCH: Savannah (US Web)
The Sky's The Limit
Savannah Woman Helps Former Female Inmates
By Bill Eagles, Staff Writer
Gale "Sky" Edeawo wants to tell you a story. The moral is one person can make a difference, especially in their own life.
Edeawo has written for a number of magazines and newspapers and is a storyteller for the city's Homeless Authority. She's also a longtime community activist.
"I like doing things where I'm helping people," explained Edeawo, a former Los Angeles resident who moved to Savannah six years ago.
Edeawo was working with at-risk youth through her writing program and was struck by the pain, anger and love they expressed. "My God, they were just babies," she recalled.
Through her work with these troubled youngsters, Edeawo decided to go to the core of the problem and find out what's going on with the mothers. The fathers, she noted, were often not involved in the children's lives.
She learned that many of the mothers of the at-risk youth were in jail or on drugs. Upon their release, they often didn't have a place to live - a foundation upon which they could build or rebuild a life for themselves and their children. Facing such daunting challenges, they often returned to the streets and crime. A return to jail was almost inevitable. Edeawo said the recidivism rate among these women could be as high as 65 percent.
Determined to break the cycle of homelessness and jail and bring families back together, Edeawo started Project Welcome Home three years ago. Her goal is to find temporary housing for released female inmates as they return to society. She actively works with eight women and stays in touch with a total of 20.
One Life To Live
Joyce Johnson is one of these women.
Johnson, 35, is thoughtful and well-spoken. She's a single mother of five, ranging in age from 2 to 16, who works at a fast-food restaurant for slightly more than minimum wage and lives with her parents. Her efforts to make a better life for herself and her children are hindered by her past - six convictions for shoplifting.
Johnson worked odd jobs as a teen-ager and went to college for several years, but eventually fell into shoplifting. "I relied on shoplifting for everything - to support my family and myself," Johnson explained. "I knew it was fast money."
It also was a fast ticket to jail. From the age of 18 until several months ago, Johnson served six prison sentences, ranging from four months to two years. After her third arrest, Johnson was classified a felon. "If I stole a stick of gum after that," Johnson said, "it would be considered a felony."
Her latest sentence ended June 9.
The cycle remained the same: Without any transitional place to learn life and career skills following her release from jail, Johnson returned to the streets and shoplifting and, ultimately, prison. Other than an occasional class on HIV, the inmates did not receive any advice on how to return to society and learn such important skills as how to interview for a job. A typical day in jail, she noted, consisted of watching TV, arguing over which programs to watch and waiting for one's court date.
"They just threw you back into society," Johnson said. "They said, 'We don't want to see you back here.' That's the cycle." The return to society is fraught with challenges. For the next seven years, Johnson has to pay her probation officer $30 a month. That money, she said, could instead go toward groceries and detergent, for example. Getting her own place is difficult, and it goes beyond coming up with the deposit and first month's rent. Among the first things generally checked are credit and background. "I have no credit and a bad background," Johnson said. Outside assistance is hard to come by as well. In early August, Johnson checked on subsidized housing and was told she didn't meet any of the following criteria, since she was not HIV positive, an active drug user or mentally challenged.
The vicious cycle of the streets to prison likely would have continued for Johnson if she hadn't been put in touch with Edeawo six weeks ago. Her godbrother, who is serving time in prison, suggested she call Edeawo. The two women have joined to become outspoken in the need for transitional housing for women. Johnson, noting all the people who have houses that are just sitting there, asks why one of those can't be used as a transitional home for women getting out of prison. If such a place existed, Johnson said, she wouldn't have gone back and forth to jail so many times.
Ironically, such a place could come from a former female inmate.
Supporting A Second Chance
Carolyn Scott, 48, is a lifetime Garden City resident. Married at 16, she had three children before getting a divorce. Although she had a GED and attended the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) for two years, Scott became involved with drugs while working off and on. She was arrested for drug possession for the first time in 1990. Over the next 14 years, she would serve three sentences for drug possession, including crack cocaine. She met Edeawo earlier this year, when the latter was giving a class at the jail, and has remained in touch since her release in February.
"It was great hearing her talk and coming to the jail," Scott said. "She offered support and encouragement."
Scott lives with her daughter in East Savannah, but owns a house in her old Garden City neighborhood that her father gave her. Although plagued by health problems that include a bad back and removal of a disc, limiting her ability to work as a housekeeper and in restaurants, Scott shares Johnson's determination not to return to prison. "My grandchildren don't want to see me in there," said Scott, who has seven grandchildren. "I'm getting older. I need some way to take care of myself, but I don't have the heart to steal."
Through her experiences and talking with Edeawo, Scott saw the need for a transitional home for former female inmates. Her house on Sixth Street would be perfect, she said, offering a refuge from the streets and a place where up to four women could learn to become productive members of society. Saying this was a way to give back to her neighborhood, an optimistic Scott contacted a state agency and offered to lease the place to them for $1 a year. It was basically a freebie - an offer the agency couldn't refuse.
But it did. Recently, the agency contacted Scott and told her it was not interested in leasing her place as a transitional home for women. She said she never got an explanation. "I was flabbergasted," Scott said. "It was a letdown."
Edeawo was equally taken aback by the decision, saying she was hurt and angry. "I don't like to let my ladies down," she said.
Edeawo and Scott aren't about to give up. Scott has maintained her close neighborhood ties and is going to the community and neighborhood for help in fixing up her place and turning it into a transitional home for women released from jail. Her goal is to have some sort of plan in place by the middle of next year.
Despite the obstacles they face, Scott and Johnson are among the more fortunate of the estimated 190 women released from jail each month in Chatham County. They have families to provide housing and other support. Many of the women, Edeawo said, have nowhere to go and live in their cars. Others don't even have that luxury and walk along Hwy. 17 when they're released from jail. Waiting for them are drug dealers and pimps, according to Johnson. "They know the women are coming along there and they're waiting for them," Johnson said. "They get picked up. That's all they know."
Edeawo said she's received plenty of positive comments. "They'd say, 'Great idea. God bless you,'" Edeawo recalled. They were less inclined to take a page from Edeawo's book and put their words into action, however. She said she's passed on information to a number of churches, specifically the possibility of sponsoring a former female inmate, but has yet to hear back from any of them. "They're not interested in helping," Edeawo said. "It's a non-caring attitude. Savannah is a troubled community. I don't know. Maybe I'm not running into the right people."
Number One Fan
One person who is in Edeawo's corner is Craig Cashman, executive director of the city's Homeless Authority, which coordinates all of Savannah's homeless services.
Cashman referred to Edeawo as probably the best advocate he's ever seen. He cited her passion for helping former female inmates.
Cashman shares Edeawo's frustration at the lack of services for women who are trying to return to society after being incarcerated. Although these women get some coordinating assistance through his agency, Cashman said, there's not funding for such things as transitional housing. Furthermore, there's a double standard placed on them. "Women transitioning out of prison are not looked favorably upon by society," Cashman said. "They don't receive a lot of sympathy from society."
Cashman hopes to help change that. He met with Edeawo and members of various agencies last month to discuss transitional housing for families and women.
In the meantime, Edeawo will remain an advocate for a segment of society often overlooked and forgotten. In many instances, she's the lone person they can come to for encouragement and support.
"It's all I want to do," Edeawo said. "Life is so rewarding when you can make a difference. Change needs to be made. In the meantime, I'll live off my credit card and a line of credit."
December 31, 2003 - Savannah Morning News (GA)
A Helping Hand
Project Welcome Home greets women leaving incarceration
By Dana Clark Felty
Cynthia Coleman's resolution last January was to land a job. She planned to bombard local employers with applications, wow her interviewers with her neat appearance, pass any test they threw at her with flying colors and then have her pick of well-paying, fulfilling management jobs.
The resolve went further. Soon after getting a job she would buy a house, move in with her children and live happily thereafter.
Unfortunately, "life doesn't work like that," Coleman said.
Particularly not when you have to account for a felony conviction.
Finding a place to live, getting a job and providing for your family pose extraordinary challenges for women like Coleman, coming out of prison or jail.
At least one Savannah advocate understands the obstacles and works to assist women while they're incarcerated and when they're released. Freelance writer Gale "Sky" Edeawo (pronounced ee-JAY-woh) visits the Chatham County jail every third Monday to offer life skills and literacy training to female inmates.
She also introduces them to Project Welcome Home, a grass-roots effort she launched aiming to help former inmates get established when they return to the outside world. Many of the women want to change their lives for the better and resume full responsibility for a job and a family, Edeawo said. However, many women have no one to supervise their first few weeks out of incarceration, when they are most vulnerable to fall back on what they know.
Edeawo refers to this transition state as crossing a "volatile bridge" into society. It starts as soon as they're released from the closed world of prison.
"We're dealing with women who are being reborn," Edeawo said. "If there's nobody there to pick them up, they're left to hitch a ride or take public transportation. And if that bus goes through a shady neighborhood, that's it.
"After three or four weeks, many are right back in the system," she said.
Project Welcome Home provides hands-on referral services, including mediation and advocacy for recently released women. Some local shelters are available for women with nowhere else to go, but there are few resources to help local women with criminal backgrounds turn their lives around, Edeawo said.
Coleman is one of the lucky ones. Her father and brother were waiting outside the gates at Georgia's state prison in Washington County when she was released on December 31, 2002. Coleman, 43, served five months in the Chatham County jail and over four months in prison for forging prescriptions to support her addiction to Vicodin, methadone and other painkillers. Her family remained supportive of her in and out of prison.
When she went to jail, her younger sister, Terri Williams, packed away everything Coleman owned and took in her children. At Christmas, Williams bought presents for Coleman's children and even used her own income tax return this year to buy Coleman a Honda Civic.
"I couldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my baby sister and my family," Coleman said. "(Terri) told me that as long as she had a roof over her head, I had a roof over my head."
Coleman would prefer to not have to accept so much generosity from her family and would rather pay them back for all they've already done. But to do so she has to find an employer who accepts her criminal background and a community program to help her find housing.
Her new life would include providing a home for her three children: daughters Catisha, 6, and Delwanna, 27, who has physical disabilities, and her 26-year-old son Antonio, who is now serving time at a boot camp for violating probation for armed robbery. With her sister's support, Coleman now cares for her daughters and expects her son home some time in January.
She has applied to over 20 jobs this year but has had no luck. The pattern is the same.
"I've seen it over and over. I interview and tell them my history, and they say no problem.
"I'll pass every test they give me, do well in face-to-face interviews and do more phone interviews," she said. "But eventually I'll get a letter saying 'We're not hiring right now.'" After job-hunting for weeks, the migraine headaches that once drove her to painkillers returned, and she developed severe allergies brought on by the stress, she said.
"Sometimes, I think my family doesn't know just how discouraged I feel," she said. "If you're not a fighter, it can really knock you down."
But silently letting her spirits drop creates the risk of falling back into drug addiction and possible imprisonment. Those are the times she turns to friends like Edeawo for support.
"She lets me know she's working for me," Coleman said.
That could include a phone call to a social service agency to see what's available or just a sympathetic ear.
"When you know how it is (coming out of prison), you know how much it means for another woman to say, 'I got your back,' " Coleman said.
By the numbers: women in prison
- 97,491: number of women in federal or state prison as of Dec. 31, 2002, or 6.8 percent of all prison inmates.
- 42%: growth of female prisoners from 1995 to 2002.
- 27%: growth of male prisoners from 1995 to 2002.
- 65%: women in prison in 1997 were previously convicted (23.2 were violent recidivists; 41.8 percent nonviolent recidivists).
- 32%: women who had three or more prior convictions.
- 2,587: number of female inmates in Georgia in 2000.
- 70%: female inmates convicted on property crimes. January, 2000
- 21%: female inmates convicted on drug possession crimes, January, 2000.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles Office of Criminal Justice Research.
Contact Dana Clark Felty at firstname.lastname@example.org
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