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Thursday, July 16, 2009 01:51 pm

Building a new life after prison

RaeLynn Costa is making a comeback, with the support of Project Return

RaeLynn Costa and her 14-year-old daughter, Nicole, bathe Buddy at a combination dog wash/car wash fundraiser for Project Return.

At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, RaeLynn Costa crouches next to a plastic kiddie pool, massaging oatmeal shampoo into the scruffy coat of a shelter dog named Buddy. She murmurs softly to the water-wary pooch as she rinses the soap from his fur and towels him dry.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Nicole, along with a squad of other teenage girls, are also on hand to help scrub down mucky canines and cars at the combination dog wash/car wash fundraiser at First Church of the Brethren, 2115 Yale Blvd.

It was Costa’s idea to host the unique church event, but that’s not what makes her special. In less than a year, the 45-year-old mother and animal lover has transcended from serving a drug sentence at Decatur Correctional Center to taking care of herself, her family and even her community.

Her key to success? Project Return, she says — a Springfield nonprofit organization that helps incarcerated mothers with young children re-enter society by linking them with an intimate group of trained volunteers. For at least one year after their release, these women are helped to achieve financial stability, find housing, access health care and reconnect with their family and children.

“If I would’ve come out and done it on my own,” Costa says, “I can’t promise I’d be where I am today.”

Project Return was founded in 2003 by Luther Memorial Church and three other area Lutheran congregations. Three years later the nonprofit matched its first returning mother with its first partnership team. Since then five Project Return participants have graduated. At least 14 women and their children have been helped so far in 2009.

According to the organization’s figures, an estimated 54.6 percent of former inmates return to Illinois prisons within three years of their release. Executive director Debi Edmund says that many women leaving prison suffer from what she calls “multi-abuse trauma” and easily pick up old habits if they don’t have any support.

“We may have a woman who suffers from addiction and mental health problems and domestic violence and a history of child abuse, so she’s going to have a struggle when she gets out,” she says. “This is probably the kind of person who can use our help the most.”

Costa was born and raised in Los Angeles. She moved to Miami when she was 27 years old and started getting into trouble.

She was using and selling cocaine, crack and sometimes heroin. The first time she was arrested, she was pregnant with Nicole (she had already given up two sons, one in Los Angeles and one in Miami, to their fathers). She wanted to keep her daughter, she says, until she found out she might spend at least 15 years in prison.

“I let my sister adopt her, and at that time, I believed I was doing the best thing for her,” Costa says. “We had an open adoption. Nicole would know that I was her mother.”

In December 1998, Costa was released after serving four years and used her bus ticket to rejoin her sister Melinda, her daughter and the rest of her family, who had all moved to Springfield. But her problems didn’t stop with a change of scenery.

“I started doing the same things all over again,” she says. “It’s like I have a magnet. It finds me. I don’t have to find it.”

Costa was busted for selling drugs three more times after coming to Springfield. The third time, in May 2007, she was sentenced to five years at the maximum-security Dwight Correctional Center.

It might have been her love of dogs that helped her take the first step to recovery. While in Dwight, Costa enrolled in dog grooming classes, where she learned to bathe dogs and trim their nails. After she finished the program, her teacher recommended her transfer to the Decatur Correctional Center so she could continue her studies. (Students get to use clippers in the classes at the medium-security prison.)

Costa also joined a drug treatment program at Decatur, and that’s when she finally decided it was time to change, she says. She considered checking into a residential recovery program when she was released, but then she heard about Project Return. She applied to the program and was soon visited by Paulette Roberts, the clinical program coordinator, and Patsy Howe, the addiction recovery specialist.

Costa started with Project Return after she paroled from prison in September 2008.

During a commissioning ceremony at First Church of the Brethren, team members pledge their commitment to the returning mother they will work with in the coming year.

“Patsy Howe said the day she met me, she told Paulette when they were leaving, ‘Paulette, that one’s a keeper,’” she says. “They all have a lot of faith in me, and that’s OK. I’m going to make it.”

Project Return works with the Illinois Department of Corrections to locate eligible women in Dwight, Decatur and Lincoln Correctional Centers. According to IDOC, as of July 1 there were 2,588 females incarcerated in the three women’s facilities, as compared to the 42,957 males housed in the state’s 25 other prisons.

Roberts and Howe visit the prisons twice a year to conduct “re-entry summits” that teach inmates about Project Return. They meet with prison counselors to identify women who are ready to change their lifestyles. Applicants also must be returning to Springfield and responsible for minor-aged children in order to qualify for the program.

Once the accepted participants are released, they are matched with a partnership team that’s comprised of four volunteers from a capital city area church or service organization. Several Project Return graduates are partnership team members, Edmund says, which is a huge asset to the program.

“This is someone that our new lady coming up can connect to,” she says. “She can see someone who’s been there and been successful.”

Costa was paired with a team from the First Church of the Brethren. Even though it wasn’t required, she started going to church with her team members. She’s found another family there, she says.

The first time Paula Harris, one of the members of Costa’s partnership team, met Costa, she immediately pegged her as gregarious and determined.

“RaeLynn has been a blessing not only to our team, but to the church,” Harris says. “She’s put in a lot of hard work and it’s starting to pay off for her. A dog wash and a car wash — who would think of that for a fundraiser? She has some unique abilities.”

Roger Ruth, another team member, confesses that he had never spent time around a former inmate, but experienced a similar reaction: “I met her, and I was like, ‘Wow, this woman is very honest.’ Her personality was very infectious. I knew there was something good working there.”

Project Return, the partnership team and the participant work together to establish a covenant that identifies everything the participant wants to work toward in the next year. Costa told her team that she wanted to manage her own dog grooming business, so members asked the church for donations and helped her get the tools she needed.

In April Costa’s team also helped her move from the mobile home she was living in with her roommate, Richard Duffey, to a remodeled home in Southern View. It’s another positive partnership, Costa says, because Duffey takes care of the rent. She pays the other bills, cooks the meals and cleans the house.

Other teams have helped their participant meet their goals by taking them to find apartments or to find furniture for their new homes. They offer their participants a break from daily stressors by treating them to movies or dinner, as well as providing moral support. One team held a graveside memorial service for a woman who lost a child, but couldn’t attend the funeral because she was in prison.

Costa, pictured with a Shih Tzu named Jake, manages a dog grooming business in the garage of her Southern View home. PH

The participants are expected to follow certain guidelines. They meet at least once a month with Project Return and with their team. They attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or other support groups if they’re in recovery, and see a counselor if they’re dealing with mental health issues. They’re also asked to access appropriate health care for their families and apply for jobs.

Project Return rewards participants for each success with incentive points. A job application is worth five points, Edmund explains, while attending two AA meetings each week is worth 10. The points translate into dollars and can be spent on anything the women need, including rent or utilities payments, extra groceries or birthday gifts for their kids.

In the beginning, Costa attended the required number of AA meetings and even earned additional points by cooking for her fellow participants. Now that she’s been clean and sober for more than two years, she says, she doesn’t feel like she needs to attend the meetings. She still visits with Howe once a month and calls on family or a team member for support.

“I know what to do when there comes a point where I’m having a bad day, and I want to go get high,” Costa says. “I know how to pick up a phone, and I will.”

Edmund has worked in social services for the past 10 years, while Roberts and Howe have both worked in the field for more than 20 years. What appeals to them most about Project Return, Edmund says, is offering an intensive, holistic system that meets the individual needs of each woman instead of passing them from agency to agency.

The organization also helps empower these women through a progressive concept called “restorative justice.”

“The way our society envisions criminal justice, it’s about punishment,” Edmund says. “It’s about what does she deserve for what she did? Restorative justice takes a different tack. We ask, ‘Who’s been hurt and what do we need to do to fix that?’”

As part of this method, participants acknowledge that they need to make amends with the people they’ve wronged in the past. They also accept that they, too, have been harmed by people in their lives and can now move forward.

Costa never knew she could be so happy: “Today, I have to think about me first. Today, I love me.”

In addition to her dog grooming business, Costa works as a banquet server and sells Tupperware with her sister. She goes to bingo with her roommate, but other than that, she says, she’s a real homebody.

Her daughter stays with her most of the time, and she’s also working on reuniting with her youngest son, a soon-to-be 3-year-old named Jaedyn. He’s currently in foster care; she sees him every Monday and Wednesday.

When asked about the hardest part of the program, Costa says it’s been backing away from old friends who still use drugs. It’s difficult for her to watch them fail, she says, and know there’s nothing she can do except pray for them.

Project Return intern Britni Laager and students at SCI/Benedictine University held a “Pie Your Professor” contest and donated the proceeds to Project Return.

“Not everyone is where I am,” she says. “Five years ago, I wasn’t there either. I know if I turn back and use, I’ll never be able to return to where I am today. They’re either going to put me away for life or I’m going to end up dead. I’m not willing to take my chances with either of those.”

Terry Dobbs, a third member of Costa’s partnership team, is a recovering alcoholic who’s been clean and sober for 17 years. After dealing with her own struggles and later facilitating self-help meetings at the Sangamon County jail, Dobbs wanted to do something more for the women who were in and out of trouble. Costa has broken that cycle, she says.

“She has wanted her recovery, so that to me, that’s the difference,” Dobbs says. “It’s all about the footwork that each person does themselves, and you have to want it more than anything else. I believe she does.”

Costa graduates from Project Return in October and hopes to become a member of her church’s partnership team. Even though the nonprofit recently lost all of its state funding — $75,000 was administered by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services last year — due to budget cuts, and had to reduce its staff hours by 50 percent, Edmund feels confident that community support will keep their doors open. She’s still working to recruit partnership teams so more women like Costa will have somewhere to go when they’re ready to come home.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for anyone who wants it, [for] any mother who wants to be a family with her kids and be the mother that they can be,” Costa says.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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