Rhode Island Spotlight: The Blessing Way Provides a Path to a New Life

bless1It is a graduation with no gowns, music or the obligatory walk across a stage. But for Raphael Ribera this is a major milestone in his life — and one that may well save his life.

Raf, as his friends here call him, has just completed a 90-day reentry and recovery program run by The Blessing Way, a non-profit organization founded nearly a decade ago by Reverend Joyce Penfield, an Episcopal priest who had worked as a chaplain with both men and women at the ACI.

“Sobriety, faith, and just getting my life back together,” Ribera told us. “I was pretty broken when I got here and other pieces are coming back together again.”

Ribera’s story is a familiar one. He has had substance abuse problems and was periodically homeless. Others who make their way here are fresh out of prison, often with no support system or resources and with a good chance of winding up back behind bars.

“The prison can’t keep up with all of the needs; they just don’t have the resources,” Rev. Penfield said. When she began working with female inmates in 2001, the priest quickly learned getting out of prison brought mixed emotions. “They were afraid to leave because they had no place to go, they had no job, they had no network of support.”

bless2In her job as chaplain, Rev. Penfield eventually met all of the women admitted to prison and quickly found she knew many of them because they had reoffended and were sent back to the ACI. And that was the inspiration for The Blessing Way, which is operated out of St. Peter’s and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Providence, where Rev. Penfield is the part-time priest-in-charge. She devotes the majority of her week to The Blessing Way as its executive director.

“The first focus was just helping people get spiritually grounded when they got out. But then we realized that without a coat, without a place to go and food, your stomach is hungry, so spiritually you’re not very complete.”

The Blessing Way is a non-profit organization supported through donations and grants. Reverend Penfield is a mix of compassion and tough love. The organization rents apartments for its participants in an adjacent triple-decker owned by the church. The Blessing Way pays rent to St. Peter’s and St. Andrew’s for the space. For the 90-day program, two women live on one floor and two men on the other and there are live-in house managers as well.

The first rule: No drugs or alcohol or you get bounced. No second chance. And there are goals right from the get-go because the 90 days go quickly. “The day that they come to us, I meet with them and do an orientation,” Rev. Penfield said. “They get the date that they’ll graduate, and it’s 90 days or close to it.”

bless3Ribera has been working at the church, doing painting, raking leaves and light maintenance. “They also have a Life Skills class every Wednesday. I thought, ‘I’m good, I’m an adult,’ but they teach me new stuff that I’ve never thought about. It’s thinking in a new way. You know to do it the right way this time, instead of my way.”

The groundwork for the program begins long before the men and women get out of prison and Reverend Penfield personally picks up each on the day he or she is released. “I will already know five things that we need to get done within two or three hours. And I will take them around to get their money from the inmate accounts, to go over and cash it so they’ll have something to go and get clothing if they don’t have it. In two days we can get everything done, but by bus it would take them two weeks, and they need to get stable for those first few days. The next week they’ve got to get a job, so we start getting them job prep.”

Rev. Penfield just finished a year-long study showing concrete results of the program. She estimates it saves taxpayers more than a million dollars a year by cutting down on the recidivism rate for the more than 150 men and women who have gone through the program since 2007.

“We just want them to be safe off the street, have them emotionally together and spiritually connected. We want them to get connections to services and we’ve been able to do it in 90 days. We’re like a little home. We provide stability, structure and boundaries.’’

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

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