Oct 14, 2013

Women Helping Women gets a jump on the holidays by collecting pajamas and pillows for Grace House ex-prisoners

When the door to the outside world finally swings open for a woman in the Illinois prison system, she may find that old habits want to take her down a path she no longer wants to traverse. Old thought patterns make her U-turn that much harder, and learning to walk straight requires determination, support and no small amount of grace.

Fortunately, grace is the house specialty at a residential program helping newly-released female prisoners get back on their feet. Founded in 1994 on the Near West side of Chicago, Grace House provides counseling and support services to formerly incarcerated women to give them a real shot at reaching new goals.

Women Helping Women will partner with Grace House for its ninth Mix-and-Mingle. Hosted by the women attorneys of Chuhak & Tecson, P.C., WHW is an after-hours networking group that allows professional women to combine networking, business development and community service all in one convenient format. The event will be held from 5 to 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 14, at Lloyd’s Chicago.

Eight previous mixers have shown that women find mingling over cocktails with fellow entrepreneurs, decision makers and potential strategic partners to be an ideal match for community service. Reaching out to a different not for profit organization at each of its biannual gatherings, WHW gives charities that serve women the opportunity to tell their stories and generously showers them with practical resources to support their efforts.

“With all the different roles that they play, it’s difficult for women to find time to market themselves and also find time for charitable work,” said Eileen Sethna, a Chuhak & Tecson principal who will give opening remarks at the event. “This is a two-for-one, a perfect fusion of the two. You feel good about being there because it’s a philanthropic endeavor set against the backdrop of business building.”

Sethna volunteered at Grace House last year as part of a team of women attorneys who spruced up the property by gardening and painting. She was impressed not only by the 18-bed facility, but also by its administrator.

“Sister Theresa Mayrand was so vivacious and thankful for our commitment to beautify their residence,” Sethna said. “Even while she was with us planting in the garden and pouring paint into our trays, she interacted graciously with the residents—engaging and introducing them to us. She is hardworking, hopeful and dedicated. You could not ask for a better ally at such a pivotal time.

“Grace House offers a wonderful environment where residents can receive the nurturing support, encouragement and training they need during their challenging transition,” Sethna said.

Created by the Episcopal Church in the same model as St. Leonard’s House, its men’s ministry, Grace House is voluntary for those who want meaningful help.

Women coming out of prison need a “stepping stone,” Mayrand said, adding that a high percentage of the women were incarcerated due to drugs or drug-related issues. The first step is to help them retain sobriety; the second is to deal with the emotional trauma that led to drugs and prison in the first place.

“Most have been very abused, many from childhood on, so an important part of their healing and being able to move on is coming to grips with the trauma that they endured,” Mayrand said.

To that end, and to encourage permanent sobriety, Grace House uses interns from the Adler School of Psychology, full-time social workers, a relapse prevention specialist and intensive therapy programs. The painful area of family reunification also is addressed through therapy and family visits.

The program fills in educational gaps at whatever level the individual needs, as well as job readiness training. Some women take culinary classes at St. Leonard’s and work at the new café there; others are showing promise and success at local colleges.

“There’s so much against these women,” Mayrand said. “For some it was a minor drug offense; it wasn’t something where they were really out to hurt another person. But having to admit to a prison record often shuts doors to employment and housing.

“I am very touched and impressed by the women,” Mayrand said. “They strive so hard to turn their lives around and achieve. There are some who’ve said they’ve never achieved anything in their lives before. To see them struggling with the abuse that they received early in life—that doesn’t just disappear—and to maintain their sobriety and move toward independence is very inspiring.”

Participants at the WHW event are asked to help provide holiday gifts for Grace House residents by bringing donations of new pajamas, nightgowns and robes (sizes L-3X), slippers (sizes 6-10) and pillows. Gift cards to Target, CVS or Walmart also would make good stocking stuffers.

The Mix-and-Mingle will be held at Lloyd's Chicago, 1 S. Wacker Dr. If you would like to receive an invitation, please contact Katie Walsh at (312) 201-3447 or