Celebrating 50 years of Guest House

Celebrating 50 years of Guest House
Friends of Guest House is located in Del Ray. (Courtesy photo)

By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Walking through the streets of Del Ray, you’d never notice that a home for recently incarcerated women was standing among the single-family homes in the neighborhood.

Which is exactly the point.

This quiet property has been the home of Friends of Guest House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting women successfully reenter the community following incarceration, since its founding in 1974 by Betty McConkey.

McConkey, who was formerly incarcerated, saw her fellow parolees struggle with daily life following prison, so she decided to help them out. She rented out 1 East Luray Ave. then, and it remains the residential and administrative headquarters of Guest House today.

“I don’t think [the house] looks any different than when it did 50 years ago,” Deacon Lewis Eggleston, director of marketing for Friends of Guest House, joked, referring to the 100-year-old home in all of its authentic charm.

The house is definitely charming: the front porch is adorned with sparse outdoor furniture and looks quiet from the outside. As soon as you step inside, the 1920s-era house livens with conversations, laughing and shuffling around. Women of all ages, races and backgrounds sit together on the couch waiting for their next class to begin.

The backyard is itself home to a large deck with plenty of plants and just beyond is a sitting area for residents to enjoy in the warm spring and summer months.

In addition to providing a place to live, Guest House provides case management, mental health and substance abuse counseling and life skills training to non-violent women. The nonprofit also works with local social services and provides a workforce development and mentorship program.

Friends of Guest House is celebrating 50 years of helping women. (Courtesy photo)

Since 1974, Guest House has served more than 5,000 women across its residential and outreach programs. The nonprofit went under a transformation in 2005, expanding its residential program, volunteers, staff and the amount of women served each year.

For nearly 18 years, the program was led by now former Executive Director Kari Galloway, who helped bring Guest House into a period of growth and flourishing. After briefly closing its doors in 2003, Guest House reopened in 2005 following Galloway’s hiring.

According to her biography page on the program’s website, Galloway helped Guest House grow the amount of women served per year by five times, grow the staff and volunteer network and expand the budget.

“We can’t lock everybody up, nor can we throw away the key. Most people get out of jail. If we don’t support them, they have even less opportunity than before, because of the difficulty finding jobs and housing and things like that,” Galloway said in her staff bio. “They come out with less than when they went in. I don’t need to be a math major to know that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Eggleston said Galloway is important to Guest House’s history.

“[She] brought Guest House from a dilapidated and derelict house to a beautiful home for the thousands of women to pass through our doors today,” he said.

Former Mayor Alison Silberberg also had fond memories of Galloway’s work at Guest House.

“It takes real courage to change one’s life, and Kari and her staff created a special and safe space to create bonds of friendship, real support and a way to carve a path forward and reengineer one’s life,” Silberberg said. “That’s what Friends of Guest House has been doing for 50 years, and Kari Galloway was at the helm of it.”

Now, Guest House is led by Sonja Allen – and has been since July 2022 – who previously served as director of operations. Allen is a licensed attorney who catered to underrepresented populations and worked with charitable organizations, the program website states.

It’s also the only program of its kind in Northern Virginia, which makes it a tough application process for inmates.

According to previous articles on the nonprofit, there is often a waiting list for women to enter the programs. A Washington Post article from 2019 stated Guest House receives more than 400 applications a year from incarcerated women in the area; both homes for the residential and aftercare program – which assists those recently in the residential program further transition – can only hold less than 50 women every six months.

These programs have proven to be beneficial not only for the formerly incarcerated, but also the prison systems: Reentry programs have been shown, according to a 2018 Pew Charitable Trusts of federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report, to reduce recidivism – the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend – rates in several states. This decrease reduces taxpayer spending on prisons and improves public safety, Pew’s report stated.

A resident of Guest House who requested to remain anonymous described how much Guest House can help with reentry into the community.

“They have you write a one-page essay on why do you want to enter Friends of Guest House and what are you expecting to get out [of] the program. … I [thought I] was ready to enter the community, but when I got here and sat down and actually realized it, I wasn’t,” the resident said.

Another report stated recidivism often occurs due to a lack of resources or connection to resources that prisoners face once released, especially those exiting long-term sentences.

A major barrier to successful reentry to society is unemployment: a 2018 study found that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of 27%, which is higher than the total unemployment rate during any historical period in the United States, including the Great Depression.

The resident said the application process typically takes 30 to 90 days and also includes a phone interview. Starr Edwards, a graduate of the program, emphasized that she chose to go to Guest House following her three years in prison.

Both women interviewed for this story were not from the region. Edwards hails from Bristol and the resident from Richmond.

“It’s better to be absent and present at the same time than it is to be present and absent,” Edwards said. This stems from something her mother often tells her, as Edwards was addicted to drugs and often “absent” despite being physically present.

“Whenever I was home, I was somewhere else all the time. My mom always … makes it a point to tell me [that] she feels closer to me seven hours from home,” Edwards said. “It’s challenging, but at the same time, it’s necessary.”

Edwards remembers when she first arrived thinking that the environment at Guest House was welcoming. She recalled having a drawer full of clothing by the time she went to bed that first night and also had ample hygiene products.

“You know that they care here, and when you know that you have somebody backing you that cares, you’re more apt to do something good,” Edwards said. “You know you’ve got a support system and that means so much when you’re doing such a big thing in your life.”

The women in the program participate in all types of activities.(Courtesy photo)

But, she wasn’t always on-board with the program. “It took me about, probably three or four weeks to take off my running shoes.”

Eggleston echoed Edwards, stating the neighborhood and surrounding churches are helpful and supportive of the women that walk through the doors to Guest House every day.

“I watch when every donation comes in, and to see a donation come from the street: it just melts my heart to see that,” Eggleston said. “Not only are they supporting the women at Guest House, but financially supporting them – it just warms my heart.”

Eggleston also said Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – which is across the street from Guest House – is generous with their gifts, even giving each woman a Christmas basket in 2023.

“That separates us from the 90s notion of a halfway house,” Eggleston said. “We could … just function only on the money that the Department of Corrections gives us. But like that, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Edwards has since graduated from the program and will soon move out of the aftercare program of Guest House. A shift leader at a local Dunkin’, she is working on building her confidence as she moves toward complete independence.

“In all honesty, I keep looking for, ‘OK, when’s it going to fall? When is that going to happen?’ Edwards admitted. “Because every time I’ve ever been up, I just fall in. I’m starting to finally let that fall off of me and realize, ‘I think you finally made it, girl.’”