- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

Susan Galbraith worked as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill for 15 years before deciding it was not enough just to fight for the passage of laws to make treatment more available for alcohol and drug addicts. She wanted to do something more.
"For a long time I had felt very effective, but the day came when I felt very powerless over being able to influence the process," she says. "I really wanted to move the focus of my work to an area where I could make a difference and really have an impact."
Mrs. Galbraith, 40, found that focus in 1992 when she was invited to the correctional center then in Lorton to talk to the female inmates. The trip inspired her to change her career and her life.
What struck her most was that prisoners released from jail were at a disadvantage in managing the challenges they faced. Many of the women had nothing to which to turn no home, family, job or money.
"I was just stunned that we would release these women back into the community with so little support," says Mrs. Galbraith, who saw an opportunity for a new career in which she actually could make a difference.
She left her job as a lobbyist and founded Our Place, a community-based outreach center with the mission of serving D.C. women who are incarcerated or were released recently from jail. Our Place creates individual recovery plans for women that focus mainly on jobs and adequate housing. The center compiles lists of job openings and vacant apartments from the Internet and newspaper ads and through word of mouth. It also provides support for meeting basic needs, including obtaining a birth certificate and clean, presentable clothing.
During a recent interview in the Southeast row house where Our Place has been located since it was established in 1999, Mrs. Galbraith says she did the right thing. Over the past three years, Our Place has helped more than 1,000 women get their lives on track.
Women who have used Our Place, located in the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, say they are as inspired by Mrs. Galbraith as she is by them.
"What goes on here comes from the heart. It makes you want to come back and do something for the next person once you're back on your feet," says a woman who speaks on condition she be referred to as "Cheri" in this article.
Another woman, who calls herself "Shelly" says: "I have been in and out of prison since I was 18, and if it wasn't for Our Place, I would probably be back on the street right now. The clothes I'm wearing, the entire outfit I have on, right down to the pantyhose, come from here."
Some women transported from prison to the District by bus arrive with nothing more than the used clothing they are wearing, as little as $50 in their pockets and some identification papers, Mrs. Galbraith says.
Our Place helps them find shelter if they need it and also provides help for women who are assigned to a halfway house. Nobody stays at Our Place, which most women use as a safe haven because it has services not offered by the city's halfway houses.
"Our Place offers different avenues for women. It helps you realize that your life doesn't just have to stop just because you're out of prison, "says Cheri, 37, who got out of prison Nov. 26.
"Everything you can get here is for free. At a halfway house, they just want you to somehow find a job and pay them 25 percent of what you make and then get out," she says.
Cheri, who has found a good office job since her release from prison, says, "Compared to a halfway house, you come here, and you'll see literature about job openings that you can actually get."
Our Place begins the process by sending staff members to prisons where D.C. women are incarcerated mainly in Danbury, Ct., Alderson, W.Va., and the D.C. Jail to speak with the women about how they are going to avoid ending up back in jail after being released.
The center has an annual budget of about $365,000, with funding coming from various sources, including foundation grants, businesses, community organizations and individual donations.
Shelly, 34, who was released from prison Dec. 18, says her most recent incarceration resulted from being sent to a halfway house the last time she got out of the D.C. jail. She said she felt trapped at the halfway house because it lacked the resources she needed to get her life back on track.
"I felt I didn't have any support, and I wound up back on the street," she says, adding that she eventually was arrested and charged with violating the terms of her sentence. "This time what's so different is that I found about Our Place, and I realized there was somewhere I could turn to when I got out of jail and everything I had destroyed in my life I could rebuild."
While staying at a halfway house, Shelly visits Our Place almost daily for support. "Now I'm motivated every morning to adding accomplishments to my life, such as obtaining a job," she says.
Positive attitudes like that are what keep Our Place and its founder going. Mrs. Galbraith says, "I have met more committed, caring and decent human beings during the process of starting this program than I ever would have imagined."
Asked whether the life change she sought when she left her career as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill to start "making a difference" has occurred, Mrs. Galbraith pauses, then says, "I hope it has happened.
"I have just been so inspired by these women," she says. "Think of it from my perspective: I [still] have a place to go home at night, I have two cars, a bank account, a graduate degree, and I go and pick up a woman who gets off a bus with literally only the clothes on her back and a paper bag with some identification in it."
"We can help her get started," she says. "I get to do that every day."

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