“If you don’t want brutal honesty, don’t ask me!”
Sher Bialczyk – Journey House Manager
It’s a snowy Valentine’s Day afternoon. Sher and I sit across from each other at the dining room table in Journey House.
Sher is an expert on both being in prison in Missouri and getting out of prison. She has done it four times. She is also experienced in both being in a marriage and getting out of a marriage which she has also done four times. Sher has three grown children.
This is a tale of her metamorphosis from “outcast forever felon” to becoming the manager of Journey House and beyond.
Sher is a regular public speaker about the “different model” found at Journey and Peace Houses, and why it’s so successful in helping women rebuild their lives and stay out of prison.
We will also meet Allison, the youngest resident here, who is Sher’s “extremely personable” four-year-old adopted daughter. (Allison is Sher’s daughter’s daughter). We will learn how “Allison works her magic” with the other ladies who are mothers painfully estranged from their own children.
Note: Reference is made to Georgia Walker, Sister Rose McLarney, Sister Gabrielle Smits, Sister Martha Niemann and Patty Clune who are the visionary women who created the Journey and Peace House. You will be hearing much more from them and other remarkable staff throughout these stories.
I had four incarcerations. The first was for second-degree assault. I injured somebody driving while intoxicated. The next three were because I kept drinking and absconded from my parole appointments. I needed lots of do-overs. When I was in prison the last time, I was fifty-two. I got to thinking about life expectancy and how long do I have? Twenty years left? A little more? I don’t know. The last fifty have flown by in a blink and I only have a teeny- weeny bit of it left. So, what am I going to do? Continue to numb myself my entire life? It was a rock bottom, come to Jesus kinda deal.
What’s it like coming out of prison?
You leave prison with zero - just the clothes on your back (sweatshirt and sweatpants), recycled shower shoes (huge bright orange sliders that don’t fit anybody), five dollars and your prison ID. You are whacked with an impossible reality. Survive? How? When you come out, the chances of you making it are very slim. You have so much on your shoulders right off the flip. Huge obstacles. You are an outcast. You will forever have the label felon. It never goes away - any time you have a background check, an employer interviews you, or you try to get an apartment. If you encounter the police, you will get harassed more than someone else. I can’t vote until I get off parole. I can’t get a passport until five or seven years after I’m “off paper.” Your prison ID is your whole identity. It’s another kind of doing time. A stigma. A FOREVER FELON jacket you always wear. Before you are released you must have a homestay plan, but very often it doesn’t work out, doesn’t last.
What was it like getting released and coming to Journey House?
I was dropped off at the bus station in Kansas City at dawn. I climbed off the prison van and there was Georgia Walker waiting to pick me and two other gals up. She drove us to breakfast and to Walmart to get bras and panties and socks and shoes. Then we arrived here.
What was it like walking in here for first time?
Absolutely nothing like I anticipated. I envisioned coldness like prison - gray walls, metal beds, hard and chilly. But you walk in here and it’s a home. I mean when you walk through the door it is home. This place changed my life. They gave me everything I needed. They took away the worries - how am I going to sleep, eat, keep healthy and find a job when I have nothing to start with? Everybody who arrives here is afraid and nervous and clueless. How will I get my medicine? Where can I go to the doctor? I don’t have a birth certificate. No money. My teeth are awful. Journey House takes the equation away!
What do you mean, the equation?
For three months they give you everything you need to start your new life - a phone, a bus pass, a room of your own with a nice bed and a dresser and lamps. We eat dinner together in a real dining room. We cook for each other. Our basic needs are off our shoulders so we can focus on our recovery and our future. We get medical checkups right away. Health care in prison is no good. Every day we go to ReDiscover Alt Care (Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Services.) We have Vocational Rehab, thorough mental health evaluations and treatment, dental care. Many ladies can’t get a job because their teeth are all messed up. Journey helps with everything. Then, after three months of living here, they help us find housing and keep on supporting us. But over-all the best part, the most important thing, is this rush of unconditional love you feel almost immediately when you walk in.
How did you evolve from being a resident to becoming the House Manager? That’s a leap!
Ha! Well… they saw something in me. They saw leadership in me. They noticed I wasn’t out immediately chasing guys. In my mind to begin a true recovery you need to keep a man out of the equation. So many of the girls here want to hook up with a stranger.
Girls immediately look for a guy when they get out?
Some do. It’s all about the sex. Wanting to get laid. Looking for someone to love them because some are just co-dependent, desperate to be loved by anybody. They lose sight of fixing themselves inside and focus outward on some guy. But for right now I personally don’t have the time that a relationship deserves.
How would a gal meet somebody?
Recovery meetings, bus stop, on the bus. The scariest crowd can be at a bus stop. It’s the last spot I would look for a fella. I know a gal who met a guy at Probation and Parole. Right now, her life is a mess because of him. But the group of residents I have living here now isn’t really into the guy thing. They haven’t lost sight of themselves because of a man.
You have unique radar for this.
Yes, I do.
Do you point it out to somebody if you see the guy-thing developing?
I am very blunt. If you ask me, I will tell you what I think. Brutal honesty. “Why are you starting a relationship with this person you just met? What about getting your children back, your recovery?” I’d say the hardest are those who suffer from mental illness.
What’s an example of how you decide if this place just isn’t the right homestay for somebody with severe mental illness?
The staff here is trauma trained. We have people living here with multiple issues, really big challenges. These gals represent some of the hardest cases. So far, we’ve stuck it through with them. One person needed more than we could do, so we found her a better place with better services to fit her. I don’t know what it’s like to be super depressed. I have never been so sad I couldn’t function.
How have your life experiences helped your work here? Do residents approach you differently than they do the nuns and other staff?
I can instantly tell if somebody is manipulating someone or using again. Manipulation is a big thing for some of them. They’ve done it their whole lives. They know I see right through them. My relationship with these ladies is like no other. It’s kinda a mom thing and a friend thing and an authority thing. (Smiles) So, getting back to how I got the Manager job. A little while after I’d moved in here fresh out of prison, I found out that the nuns had been talking about me. They saw some sort of potential in me I sure didn’t see. When Georgia approached me, I was getting ready to walk out the door for my rehab treatment. She said, “Sher, how much money a week would it take for us to hire you as our House Manager?” I had no idea what to say! I’d never managed anything ever before in my life! Managing things well was not a part of my past at all! I asked Georgia for a job description. She said, “Well… I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. Just do everything I tell you. Don’t ask me how. Just… do it!” (Smiles) Of course, I immediately said, “Yes, but you’ll have to pay me a lot!” The transition from me being a peer to a boss seemed like it’d be impossible. I was scared to death. When Georgia announced it at the dinner table, I thought everybody’d be saying - Whaaat? Why her and not me? But they didn’t. They just grooved right into it and congratulated me like I was the perfect person for it!
Who knew? It takes navigating firmness, smarts, patience, choosing my words wisely, biting my tongue, getting my point across, keeping my cool. I sometimes have to tell one of the nuns that she is being manipulated. I kinda coach them. Some of the residents will try to take a mile before they get it.
The steady love. The intuition about what they need. Coming right out of prison the ladies just don’t believe the love and respect that’s in here. But when they are treated with dignity it finally soaks in. I have heard over and over - “I have never had this kind of love in my life before.” Or “You all are the mother I never had.”
They can’t believe they are worth it, that people would do this for them. Live with them.
Yeah. They finally stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. They let their guard down and know that we are here for them. That there are truly people in the world who are not trying to get anything from them. They are worth loving.
A rare feeling.
When they leave here after three months, they know they can come back and visit. Always an open door. A resource. They usually do a lot at first but I say, “Honey, you will eventually get involved in your own life. Your own life! Relationships, your kids, your job, your future.” Visits back get less and less and less. That’s why at a point I try not to get too close to them.
It’s hard. I don’t let myself do it because it hurts. Especially if it is a relationship, a friendship that is not like anyone else’s. Kinship. I don’t let my heart get too far into it. I remember when somebody I really loved relapsed and we had to ask her to leave. It was just…I was sick. A bottomless pit. It’s like my kids. If I don’t hear from my younger daughter, I am afraid she is using again. I have to trust God is looking after her, looking after all of us. I could never have accomplished what I have by myself. (laughs) …those ladies (the Sisters) are my inspiration.
So, this idea of the staff keeping faith in you, absolutely believing in you is key.
Yes. From the moment I walked in the door, it’s been that way. I was a total stranger. The Sisters don’t do anything specific. Nothing special. It was them just being who they are, conducting themselves on a day-to-day basis that made me want to be a better person. Them being them made me want to be good. It makes me keep telling these girls, “Always do the next right thing. Every bit of your life. Say you just got off the bus and you see somebody’s pocket change on the seat, you don’t put it in your pocket, you say, ‘Hey, you lost your money!’” And sure, granted, life will throw you bumps, but within your soul, your conscience, good things will follow. Karma. You don’t have to worry. If the police get behind your car you don’t have to worry because they are not coming after you. Self-trust. I will do the next right thing. A new feeling. Confidence. Freedom.
That confidence and grounding that builds up in someone. And it rubs off - the ladies shift how they treat each other.
Absolutely. I’m an example. I’m open about my past life, my mistakes and prison time.
Describe your experience being in prison.
Well, the treatment of our staff here versus the staff in prison is pretty much opposite. To me, the attitude of most of the staff of the Department of Corrections is that you are a lesser person. You are a criminal. An offender. You don’t deserve respect or to be talked to kindly. You are a seven-digit number. You are called by your last name. Here’s an example of something that happened to me. The goon squad! I’d been in prison a year and a half. I had a little sewing kit from my job at MVE (Missouri Vocational Enterprises.) It’s the sewing factory where we made prison uniforms. Another girl got a splinter in her finger from a wooden pallet that held the bolts of fabric so I gave her the needle from my kit. She sterilized it with a lighter first and got the splinter out. I put it right back in the kit and that night I put the kit in my locker in my room. The goon squad came in, you know, just like you’d envision when the police raid a place with black masks and everybody has to get on the ground. They enter your housing unit, your wing, and your room and then rip it up searching for contraband. They literally tear up your stuff.
Is it random?
Yeah. Although sometimes you get a little bit of heads-up that it’s gonna happen, but I didn’t have any. They got my sewing kit out and noticed that the needle had an odd iridescent bluish look at the tip because of the flame. They were suspicious even though I explained exactly what had happened. They asked if I had tattoos. I said, yes. “Are they prison tattoos?” No. “Strip!” So, I had to strip naked and have a C O (Corrections Officer) rub all my tattoos and feel if they were bumped up - still fresh. None were. But this sergeant was very rude and adamant because there was “ink” on the needle tip. He kept saying, “How long are you going to keep lying to us?” I was charged with tattooing! (Laughs) So even though there was never any ink, when I got teamed - that’s what they call it when you get judged by the IPO (Institutional Parole Officer) - they said that because the needle was “altered” by the flame and because it was not supposed to be used for splinters, it was considered contraband. I was assigned extra work detail.
Do the goon squad members all work there or do they come in from outside?
Both. But even if I had known they were coming my altered needle would never have occurred to me. That’s the kinda thing…”
I’ve heard people say that anything (contraband) you can get on the outside you can also get on the inside….
Um… yeah but I don’t think it’s as readily available as some people make it sound. You have to have a connection, some kind of standing in the population to get involved with that - maybe you need money or you are popular. I know it sounds really bad to say but lots of early trauma and drugs and pain can really blunt somebody’s smarts - their mental and emotional maturity. Lots of the women suffer from mental illness - multiple diagnoses. I was never one to hang out with lots of people - a prison clique. Being a loner worked for me. But it’s not a good way to be when you get out. The residents here say I make them feel hopeful. In fact, one here right now just said, “You are my inspiration. If you can do it, I can too.” There is an aura, a presence, something about this place… (shrugs) God? I think it’s the love given to us for no particular reason except that you are a person, a human being and you deserve it. You deserve a chance. If you want a different life, we are handing it to you on a silver platter. I wanted my younger daughter, Morgan, who had gotten into trouble, to come stay here with her baby daughter, Allison. I went to Georgia and said, “I want Morgan to experience what it’s like here. So, we tried, it but Morgan wasn’t ready yet. She is still struggling. But my granddaughter, Allison, who is four now, lives here with me. My older daughter, Megan, went through all the rough stuff with me. She went to prison, too, on drug charges. She absconded her parole exactly like I did. But now Megan is thriving with a husband and baby. She chalks up all her success to me. The last time I spoke at a fundraising event I read a card she sent me. She thanked me for changing my life. She said that if I hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been able to change hers. “Mom, you did it first.”
People might struggle to imagine a place like this. I have learned from Georgia Walker that half-way houses operated by the Department of Corrections are prison-like with uniformed guards, rigid regulations, and 24-hour surveillance. This doesn’t foster learning to live in the real world where such structure doesn’t exist. Can this place, the feeling here, be duplicated? What would take to make another Journey House?
Note: Since this conversation, a second homestay residence, Peace House, opened in summer 2019. It operates on the same model as Journey House.
The very first Christmas the Journey House was open the Kansas City Star did a frontpage story. An excerpt of that story was published in newspapers in other places and these people were reaching out, visiting from other states, wanting to know how we do it here.
You mentioned God earlier. What is the role of religion here? I’ve heard from many ladies that being honest, having doubts or not believing is okay. The Sisters say that requiring prayers, forcing the Bible on someone, and participation in something religious that you don’t really believe sets up a false situation - a thread of dishonesty which is the opposite of what the Journey House is about.
Yes. It’s downplayed. They don’t push religion at all except during Advent we say the prayers. And whoever cooks dinner each night says a blessing before we eat. The nuns will offer any kind of spiritual guidance. Anything religious-wise. They will drive you to church if you want. Pray with you. Whatever. Not everybody is on the same path.
What are the hardest things these women have to deal with when they first arrive, and how is it different when they leave?
Hardest when they first come is their anxiety level. It’s through the roof. They can’t even go to Dollar Store alone because they have been out of society so long. But gradually they understand this and they help each other.
They are trying to fit into a world where they feel they have failed, a world that has failed them.
I have not seen a person who has come here in one state of mind and left in that same state of mind!
How do residents here manage the weight of the crimes they’ve committed?
After a long time in my own recovery, I knew I couldn’t change what I did. I can’t allow myself to carry that weight like an endless sickness. Otherwise, I’m wasting all kinds of the energy I could be using for good. Just letting my guilt go helps my future soul. I can only fix the past by doing good now.
How do residents rebuild a bridge with family members who have problems of their own, who are burnt out on them and the difficulties they’ve caused? Are family members a constant reminder of the bad side of you? The you of the past?
Well… when it comes down to the whole thing of it, in my case, I have my family - the one I grew up in, my siblings and all. Does my family support me? Yes. But do they believe in me? No! Absolutely not. I cried wolf too many times. My sister is a case in point. This family undercurrent thing came out in the wash. She didn’t tell me that our mom had gone in the hospital. When I asked, “Why didn’t you call me?” She said, “Well, that’s the consequence, Sher, of not being there for her before.” I mean I have been here, working here, for two years! I am doing so well. I have achieved so much. I am proud of myself. But I am still being punished. I asked her, “Just how long will it take?” We’ve been at a distance since. That was just wrong of her. Then, again, just recently, my sister asked about my efforts to adopt my granddaughter, Allison. Let me read you my sister’s text. (She reads aloud off her phone.) “So, it’s not too late! for you to give Allison the gift of a two-parent advantageous new life. You love her that much?” Notice the question mark at the end? What she is saying is that I am doing wrong by Allison to not let a two-parent family of strangers adopt her. I know exactly what a year in foster care did to her. She was not the same kid. The whole house, all the ladies here, were in tears over that. Allison has true stability here. She said to me, “I need you, Mama.” I started adoption procedures but the DFS (Division of Family Services) person said, “Absolutely not! She is not going to live with criminals and addicts fresh out of prison in a halfway house. NO WAY!” But even the judge told the guardian ad litem (attorney who represents the best interests of children in family court cases), “Go there (to Journey House) and see the place for yourself and then make your judgment.” After she visited, she did a complete 180. Same thing happened with the court social worker and another supervisor. They came and saw our living conditions. They said it was perfectly fine and fit for this little child. People have snap judgments until they are schooled and get their hearts and eyes opened to what it is like here. I have jumped through 16,000 hoops to get Allison back and now she is. This is the only real home she has known. I am an adopted person myself and so are my siblings. I am a blood relative to Allison, but for someone with former drug or alcohol issues to adopt is very rare. But finally, they waved my felonies so I could adopt her.
What is the interaction like between Allison and the other ladies here?
It’s huge! I worried so much about how they would feel having her here when their own kids aren’t. Will it break their hearts? Remind them of what they lost and can’t ever have again? Some gals distanced themselves at first… but she is such a personable little girl. So lovable. She works her magic, magic that she doesn’t even know she has. It is so totally positive. I love her plumb to pieces!
The Drive Home:
After almost five years as house manager, Sher became a Client Success Manager at Journey to New Life. The new Journey House manager is Jill Hanlin. Her interview can be found in the Theme: My Mama.
Note: Journey to New Life, which is the parent agency of Journey and Peace Houses, is a social services provider for formerly incarcerated people in Kansas City, Missouri. www.journeytonewlife.org