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"They know I'm loving and accepting of everybody and trust everyone," says the energetic Vista jail chaplain, "but the women have to keep educating me."It's been a crash course for Warner-Robbins, founder of Welcome Home Ministries, a program that helps the women's transition from jail to the community - and helps prevent their return to jail. In the past two years, she's counseled inmates whose childhoods are defined by homelessness, poverty, inadequate education and abusive and neglectful parents. They have served time for forgery, burglary, drug dealing, car theft, pimping, pandering and prostitution. Some have had babies before being old enough to drive.
Their stories were not even faintly familiar to Warner-Robbins, who grew up on a Minnesota farm in the '40s and '50s. "My parents grew up just 3 miles from each other, so that tells you how small our world was. Things like abuse and neglect were unheard-of in my upbringing. There was a tremendous amount of cohesiveness in my family even though we really didn't have very many things.'
As a young adult, though, Warner-Robbins set about expanding her world. A nurturing home life and "adventuresome spirit" gave her the confidence to head out alone in 1963, four years after graduating from nursing school. She crammed her possessions into a '58 blue and white Chevy Impala convertible and "drove as far west as I could go."
Three days later, she arrived in San Diego. "I got here at 5 a.m., and two hours after that, I had an apartment and a job at Mercy Hospital," Warner-Robbins said. Thirty years later to the day, she was rehired by Mercy Hospital, where she works today as an editorial consultant for doctors and nurses who want to publish.
Between 1963 and 1993, Warner-Robbins served as the first nurse at La Costa Resort & Spa; worked in a surgical recovery room; and married and divorced a prominent surgeon. She earned a bachelor's degree in nursing, served as director of nurses at the San Diego chapter of the Red Cross, and founded teen-mother and rape-crisis programs. Warner-Robbins also developed the first certification course for emergency-room nurses; co-founded a medical textbook publishing company; and even shot underwater photographs for a Mexican airline.
In 1976, she remarried. She and John Robbins have a son and daughter, both in college. Through her numerous careers, Warner-Robbins harbored a desire to be a medical missionary. So in 1984, she entered Fuller Theological Seminary, and for the next decade, attended classes part time at its Pasadena and San Diego campuses. A decade later, she was ordained through Grace Ministries International, which serves the homeless and imprisoned. Soon after, Warner-Robbins began visiting inmates at the Vista jail, first dispensing books, then counseling.
"I'm not threatening to them," the chaplain explains. "I'm not a deputy or the sheriff or someone from their family. I'm neutral. I can cry with them and help them begin to look at the future." When Warner-Robbins first meets an inmate, "she won't even look at me or even want to talk. But within an hour, she has a complete transformation. I have the ability to reflect their pain and hurt - and they are amazed. I don't even have to think about it. Some people aren't going to understand that, but it's true." She assures each woman that "there is nothing you can tell me that will cause me to turn away from you."
Most inmates feel they have no future, but the always-optimistic Warner-Robbins sees this mind-set as fertile ground for presenting alternatives, especially since many inmates are ready to do anything to rebuild relationships with their children. "They just grieve over their babies, even though the things they do have been bad choices and are the cause of separation," she said.
Although the women need answers, "I'm not there to tell them what is right. I ask them to consider what is important." Somehow Warner-Robbins manages to be counselor, confessor, mother hen and friend without compromising her integrity or ideals. She can gently remind them of their transgressions, prod them to good works, pray for guidance and plan a pool party without skipping a beat.
What she does find frustrating are her limitations. "The toughest part is not being able to see everyone I'd like to, but I can't spend every day in jail." Juggling family, job and ministry isn't easy, but she has the support of her husband John Robbins, "as long as it doesn't affect the stability and relationship of our family."
"When I look at the consequences of drug use, I say, yes, it does require punishment," Robbins said. "The loss of freedom gets the women's attention. ... and some aren't ready to go back to society. They go right through the turnstile again. But unless something intervenes, their lives won't change." Sometimes he worries about his wife's safety, too. When her work takes her into bad neighborhoods, "we talk about it," and sometimes he accompanies her. But Warner-Robbins is not as concerned. She believes the Lord -- and a few thoughtful humans -- will watch over her. As proof, she tells a story from the early '70s when she was chauffeuring teen mothers to their homes in southeast San Diego.
"I pulled up to this stoplight and a guy came over to the window," she relates. "He looked in and saw this white women and six black teen-agers, all pregnant. He said, 'Oh, so you're Carmen the nurse. We'll make sure you're safe. We'll protect you.' So you see, it always works out."Warner-Robbins' goal is to put the Welcome Home women in charge of the organization."This is their ministry and it needs to be directed and led by them," she says. "I am there to take direction from them."
*Courtesy of North County Times