The Coast News Group
Welcome Home Ministries leader Donna Cleveland, right, wipes her eyes as she listens to women tell their stories of triumph over addiction and other struggles. Photo by Rachel Stine
Welcome Home Ministries leader Donna Cleveland, right, wipes her eyes as she listens to women tell their stories of triumph over addiction and other struggles. Photo by Rachel Stine
Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story

Grant falls through for ministry that cares for women beyond jail

REGION — Sitting in an open circle of about 40 other women, Rachel Silva began to share her story. 

Recalling her struggles of addiction, she talked about the time she and her child were shot several years ago.

“I survived that for some reason, and for a very long time I didn’t understand why I was alive,” she said, brushing her long, light brown hair over her shoulder.

She spent some time in jail and eventually, “I decided I needed to pull it together for my kids,” she said.

Upon her release from jail, she completed 17 months of sobriety programs and regained custody of her kids.

Silva told the group that she’s been sober for over five years now, and the other women burst into applause.

But she acknowledged that to keep going, she still needs support.

“I’m a pretty strong woman, but I have my weaknesses. And when I do, (my friends are) there to pick me up,” she said, looking at the other women around the room. “I got clean. I got my children back. I just have so many miracles through Welcome Home.”

But she wished she had found Welcome Home Ministries even sooner and had more support during the lowest points in her life, saying, “No woman should have to go through hell and back to get help.”

In a modest community clubhouse in Leucadia, Welcome Home Ministries’ reunion on Sept. 28 celebrated the recovery of women like Silva who have reached out to the 3-year-old nonprofit for support during their transition from incarceration into productive as well as crime- and addiction-free lives.

While much of the organization’s efforts center around a support program they run in the Las Colinas jail, Welcome Home strives to offer continuous support outside of jail as well as to encourage the women to stick to their recovery under the leadership of Donna Cleveland and Carmen Warner-Robbins.

Julie Bjorklund said that she has been in and out of jail since 1990, and when looking for programs, she found that everything was man-based.

She said that when Welcome Home was established, “We finally had this place for women…They always open the doors for you.”

The Oceanside-based nonprofit helps connect women with numerous addiction recovery, transitional housing, and medical programs throughout the county, but is mainly grounded in providing peer-driven, faith-inspired support. Most of the volunteers who minister to the women have been incarcerated themselves.

Kat Pearsall said that it’s the, “I’ve been there. I’ve done that,” perspective that Welcome Home Ministries has that makes it different than any other support organization she’s encountered during her own recovery.

“They’ll never judge you through anything,” she said about the volunteers. “I look at Donna and say, “That’s where I want to be.’”

But while the reunion displays the program’s achievements, behind the scenes the volunteers are struggling to make ends meet.

Orchestrating Welcome Home’s numerous programs and groups requires dozens of hours each week, and not a single person on staff is paid. Most of the volunteers hold down full-time jobs on top of their commitments to Welcome Home, and the organizers themselves pay for most of the ministry’s supplies.

For the past several months, the organizers had been holding their breath for a $300,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice, but Warner-Robbins was recently notified that Welcome Home was not selected.

“Funding continues to be a real issue,” she said. “But the Lord has greater things in store, I know.”

So in the mean time, Cleveland, Warner-Robbins, and the other volunteers will continue to run Welcome Home out of pocket.

At the reunion, Cleveland said that seeing all of the women who are sober and leading healthy lives reminds her of the fruits of her efforts running Welcome Home on top of working a full-time job.

“This makes it all worth it,” she said.