coverstory

April 2009

The Great Believer
Jennie Amison faces the possible end to Gemeinschaft as we know it and refuses to give up.

by Perry Neel and Deona Landes Houff
photography by Woods Pierce

Jennie Amison believes.

She believes that because she’s recovered from drug and alcohol addiction, anyone can.

She believes that even after she got sober, God let her be arrested and sent to jail so she could learn one more lesson and be of further use in her work helping addicted ex-prisoners adjust to life on the outside and stay out of trouble.

She believes that releasing an imprisoned addict back to his or old neighborhood with  $25, no housing and no skills is setting that person up to fail and re-offend.

She believes that Gemeinschaft Home in Harrisonburg provides an answer with a six-month transition program that teaches life skills. She believes this even if the client didn’t come from here and could be one of Gemeinschaft’s failures, a Shenandoah Valley newcomer who commits crimes.

She believes that despite the recent gutting of what she’s worked for at Gemeinschaft, the program she’s transformed and run for 10 years will survive. State budget cuts of $1.5 million have meant staff layoffs and the sale of two of the program’s four transition houses.

 ”I feel like I’m sitting back watchin’ my momma die. This is a ministry for me. Something I truly, truly believe in,” Amison says. “I know we are going to win. I have that total committed faith, because I know what He can do.”

“He” is God. April 8 is the day Amison believes God will come through, when Gov. Tim Kaine announces if Gemeinschaft will receive the state funding it’s relied on for years, money that in recent months has been cut, restored and then hacked again from the strapped state budget.

Amison believes in victory. And if she is denied victory on April 8, she believes in re-invention.  After the budget dust settles, Gemeinschaft could shrink even more, serving fewer clients with shorter programs. It will be a shadow of its former self, perhaps all the way back to what it was at its 1986 beginnings: a modest program serving only local ex-offenders.

When the budget cuts were first announced, stress sent Amison to the hospital for two days. “I didn’t know that stress could do that to a body,” she says. But she claims to be fine now.

And she still believes.

Dec. 4 will mark the 20th anniversary of Amison’s sobriety. Today she is 59, a grandmother, the executive director at Gemeinschaft, and an international expert on reentry. Some people in Harrisonburg might not want to hear what she has to say, but the United States Congress and the cities of St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pawtucket, Charleston (S.C) and Albuquerque have all listened, either to her testimony or her consulting. She’s shared her wisdom with 200 people in Tokyo and hosted a Japanese group who visited Gemeinschaft to learn from its success.

“I make it my business to let it be known that we have one of the most innovative programs in the nation,” she says of Gemeinschaft.

She did just that on March 11 before a U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee. With her dark skin, closely cropped blond hair and long polished fingernails, she was not the typical dark-suited white male CEO recently seen testifying before Congress.

“Reentry is not about the ex-offender,” she told the subcommittee. “It is about public safety and building community capacity. It is about improving communities through making ex-offenders contributing members. Reentry is about healthy and wholesome communities.”

Gemeinschaft board member Ruth Stoltzfus Jost of Harrisonburg attended the testimony. “One of Jennie’s strengths,” she says, “is that she’s dramatic and unforgettable. Whatever she does, you’re not gonna forget it.” Jost was amazed to find that Amison had lent West Virginian Congressman Alan Mollohan a book on reentry and that he’d returned it.

Jost says the book-lending is typical of Amison’s reach-and-touch ways. “She makes the connections,” Jost explains. “She jumps in, she knows who to call, she’s got contacts.”

Twenty years ago Amison’s contacts were less than desirable. She was a young mother in Norfolk with a drug and alcohol habit and a husband at sea. “He was sending me money, and I was going crazy,” she remembers.

Amison’s marriage to Craig survived,  she got sober and stayed that way. She enrolled in Norfolk State University and attended 12-step meetings, including ones every Tuesday at a local jail. She thought she understood the women in jail. Then she joined became one of them.

“I was sitting at my mom’s house waiting for my ride [to school] and the sheriff rode up,” she remembers of her 1991 arrest. Some bad check writing had caught up with her, and she got four days. “I did baby time. The funny part was I did mine after I got clean and sober.”

Four long nights of sleeping on the jail floor wasn’t funny at the time. But she firmly believes that as smart as she thought she was, God used jail for her benefit. “I needed one more thing. One more lesson,” she says. The lesson for her was that she needed to be more responsible and take care of life’s details. Sobriety was a great achievement, but she still didn’t have it together,  not if she was writing bad checks.

After college graduation, Amison worked for 10 years with the Department of Corrections as a transition specialist, helping inmates who were about to be released. “I saw prison becoming a revolving door,” she remembers. Inmates would go free and be back within six months. The stories were always the same: no housing, no job, no money and a lot of what Amison calls “babymommadrama.” She knew there had to be a better way, so she began to study and visit other programs.

“And me being a legend in my own mind, I decided I can do it better,” she remembers.

 … 

In Harrisonburg, the board at Gemeinschaft Home agreed with Amison’s self-assessment. Gemeinschaft - a German word meaning community - was founded in 1986 in Harrisonburg as a project to provide therapy, training and transitioning for local addicts who were being released from jail or prison. “We struggled,” remembers Bridgewater attorney Larry Hoover, who has been on and off the board for years. “We didn’t have a real core or clarity about the program.”

Hoover considers heading his greatest contribution to Gemeinschaft chairing the search committee that hired Amison nine years ago. She “helped to fully develop the potential of the program,” Hoover says.  It added sites, started serving women as well as men, took  ex-offenders from all over the state and according to James Madison University research has seen a 75 percent success rate - no arrests, convictions or recommittals - among its 650 graduates.  Virginia prisons see about 29 percent of inmates reincarcerated within 36 months of their release from prison. Gemeinschaft proves to be cheaper, too. Virginia prison costs at least $35,000 per inmate per year. Gemeinschaft costs $20,020 per resident per year.

All Gemeinschaft residents have a history of addiction and no record of violence. They must sign a binding contract to live by the Home’s rules and complete the program. The residents receive training in life skills, employment, financial management, community service, family relationships, and ethical and spiritual growth. Several have joined Amison as members of Lindale Mennonite Church.

At first Amison tried to sabotage any possible success in Harrisonburg. She had often referred paroling inmates to Gemeinschaft.  But she was reluctant to become its director. 

“I purposely came 30 minutes late [so the interview] so that they wouldn’t give me the job,” recalls the woman who had for a decade had taught prisoners to never arrive late to a job interview. “I didn’t want to leave the city and come up here to the country.”  Amison, the great believer, just couldn’t see herself happy in the Shenandoah Valley.  But a shabby resume and a weak interview were of no avail.  “God in his infinite wisdom wanted me here,” she says now.

The match was perfect.  Her background made her a natural with the former inmates and substance abusers.  “They’ve been so beaten down, that what they need is hope,” she says. 

She takes them into her office where the walls and desk are covered with awards and recognition. She tells them she’ll always be there for them. She proves it when they call at midnight about to backslide.

One former resident tells Amison her that every time he is about to screw up, her voice or face seems to pop up. “He’s stayed out of trouble all these years,” she says.

 …

Not all the residents stay out of trouble. In 2007, Harrisonburg State Sen. Mark Obenshain, Harrisonburg -Rockingham Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst and others went public with their opinions that  Gemeinschaft’s residents had brought too much trouble to the Valley. The Department of Corrections began making fewer referrals.

Then the great state budget cuts of  2008 hit. Last fall, Virginia announced it would cut all its $1 million in funding for Gemeinschaft. The General Assembly reinstated the money earlier this year, but it was cut in a conference committee just before the session ended.

Now funding is up to Gov. Kaine. Amison knows Kaine and he knows her (she’s an active Democrat), and she believes there’s hope. Once known as someone who would not take “no” for an answer, lately she had had to.  In mid March the City of Harrisonburg turned town her request for grant money. The program - the only one of its kind in Virginia, teh one she and her staff she built to national and international prominence - is in real trouble.

 ”Some people think I am crazy,” Amison acknowledges.  “But when you come from the pits of hell where I came from, you know only He [God] can bring you out.”  Right now the home is running only at about half capacity, 27 of 48 slots for men and seven of 14 slots for women are occupied.  Without state funding, Gemeinschaft will likely close its women’s program.

Not daunted, Amison says “one way or another, we are going to be open.” She is already taking referrals from District Courts for  a three-month, instead of six-month, program.

The shift is difficult and makes success more elusive. The referrals, who come straight from jail, are having DTs whereas people came out of prison clean and sober. “These people only get 90 days [to straighten out and] I ain’t never seen too much you can do with a drunk in 90 days,” she says.

Amison is also fearful about job opportunities for those referred from court.  “They can’t hold a job anyway because nobody has dealt with their issues, like anger, rejection, bad relationships.”  And many just aren’t mature yet.  “I keep getting them younger and younger.” 

Can the younger offenders in shorter programs get the message?  It  might be all Amison can do to instill some principles.  Two on her list: “There is no right way to do a wrong thing.” And “the mark of a man is what you do when nobody is watching.”  She knows she has taught that to the older ones.  But with them she has had more time and perhaps more open ears.

What she’d really like is for the prison program people to stick around longer.  If the program extended to a year, residents could use the time to pay court fines, child support, continue drug tests and group sessions while paying rent to Gemeinschaft, she says.

Meanwhile, she waits for April 8. At night she goes home to Craig, three of their five children, a granddaughter and a future daughter-in-law. And she prays.

Amison knows she can do most anything.  Her office is surrounded with reminders.  Among the awards, certifications and recognitions, there hang photos of her with President Barack Obama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both were taken during the dignitaries’ visits to JMU when she approached them, introduced herself and made sure the moment was photographically recorded. Above her chair, signed by Gov. Kaine, is a framed letter restoring her voting rights, which she lost for writing those bad checks almost 20 years ago. She sought out Kaine at the JMU Obama rally last year just to be able to say, “Please don’t leave us out of the budget.” 

She believes that he believes in Gemeinschaft. “I’ve been calling everybody from here,” she says in her Harrisonburg office. “I’ve been calling Richmond, I’ve been calling Washington. It would really be a disaster to have to give up.”