Welcome Home Women
Welcome Home Stories
Welcome Home Stories
DONNA NICKEL, 39, credits Welcome Home for helping her break the cycle of drugs, prostitution and abuse that defined most of her previous life in Oceanside.
"Going to jail saved my life," she said. That's because there she found a lawyer who eventually helped her get the knee surgeries that will allow her to enter a job program. Being jailed also meant meeting the Rev. Carmen Warner-Robbins.
"Without Welcome Home, I couldn't have made positive friends," said Nickel, whose record contains at least a half-dozen jail sentences. "You get down so low. But Carmen is somebody who has some hope for me and doesn't see me as a bad person."
Nickel has spoken before community groups about Welcome Home, and recently accompanied Warner-Robbins to Sheriff Bill Kolender's office to report on the program's progress.
"I thanked him for letting me be a boarder of the county," she joked. "Before, I never would have been able to talk to someone of that caliber."
Nickel was one of a dozen Welcome Home women who recently received a makeover at Headliners for air in Encinitas, where several stylists gave up their days off to pamper the women. Nickel loved the transformation created by the stylish haircut, color, makeup and manicure. She also received extensive dental care at the clinic at St. James Catholic Church in Solana Beach.
"It's lifted my self-esteem," she said. "It's made me feel like the new person that I want to be. I pray my dogs recognize me. They get confused when I put on a dress."
KIMBERLY PLATT of Escondido has probably done more living than any six other people. By age 13, she had run away, become pregnant and been arrested for possession of marijuana and a stolen car. Since then, she has been detained, arrested or jailed 400 times.
Having alcoholic parents and being forced to care for three younger siblings were too much for her. She ran away at 12 and "spent more time in juvenile hall than at home." Later, Platt abandoned two daughters to pursue a life of prostitution, drug abuse and forgery.
"My friends would steal checks from mailboxes, and I'd make drivers' licenses so they could use the checks. I was good at it. I also altered checks and used the money to support my drug habit, pay for motel rooms and take care of my homeless friends."
Platt met Warner-Robbins while mourning the death of a puppy that had been put to sleep because she was in jail.
"Carmen prayed me through it and told me to write a story," said the 41-year-old grandmother. "My whole opinion of God changed."
Platt was released from jail in January 1996, and 11 months later found Warner-Robbins' phone number in her Bible. She called the chaplain, and the next day, stood before a Kiwanis club to tell her story and that of Welcome Home.
Platt has completed a drug-recovery program at Green Oak Ranch in Vista, is employed, writes music and plays the guitar, and visits other women in jail.
"Most of us have had an active addiction for more than 20 years. ... and our illegal activities have messed up more than a couple of lives," Platt admitted. "But with Welcome Home, we support each other and reach out to other women in the same situation and give them hope. Now I want to reach out and be there for someone and make a difference."
CHRISTINA RAMIREZ, self-proclaimed "former drug queen of Vista," has been jailed multiple times because of drug-related crimes.
"When I learned about cocaine, I lost my whole life," she said.
Her biography includes an alcoholic mother who abandoned her; the death of the beloved grandmother who cared for her; a twin brother who died of a drug overdose; a life on the streets; five children brought up in foster homes; four husbands; and many beatings.
"I looked like a train wreck," she said.
Ramirez, 45, joined Welcome Home nearly two years ago, and in the last year, completed a supervised drug recovery program, cleaned houses to support herself, and attended school. She often makes the other women laugh during the support group meetings, and the self-taught artist sometimes sketches her friends.
"When I talked with Carmen, it made me feel good to get my feelings out, even about the tragic times. You must talk about those because it helps to get rid of the pain."
Ramirez was recently hired as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Her goal is to reunite with her youngest child, a 9-year-old daughter.
"Now I have the feeling that I want to do something with my life," she said. "I'd like to be a Welcome Home counselor. It's not hard to stay away from drugs now because people care about me. I'm happier than I've ever been before."
Suzie Cavallo of Oceanside is dying for a haircut. It's been more than four months since her last one. It's not that she hasn't had time -- lately she's had nothing but time -- however, a hair salon is not one of the amenities at the Vista jail.
Cavallo was jailed in July 1997 for forging checks. She'd been jailed four times before, but each stay was brief. This time, Cavallo's stay in the county's "North House" lasted 100 days. The experience was sobering.
"I felt really scared and alone," she says, remembering the day the cops hauled her off in handcuffs as her two daughters watched.
But on this December day, Cavallo is out of jail, has completed another 41 days on house arrest, and is free to go wherever. She is determined that it won't be back to North House.
"I wanted to cheat a couple of times' while on house arrest, she confesses, "but decided that's not the way to go."
Cavallo, 36, credits her resolve to Welcome Home Ministries, a fledgling program that gives ex-inmates the material, social and spiritual assistance they need to re-enter the community and quit returning to jail. Like most inmates, Cavallo was there because she used drugs. Getting high with her boyfriend was more important than her children, job or community. Making phony IDs, cashing phony checks and stealing -- it's all pretty easy when you're high, she explains, "but I wouldn't have the guts to do it now that I'm sober."
Her 141-day sentence knocked Cavallo for a loop.
"When Suzie came to me, her face was drawn; her eyes were dead," remembers Carmen Warner-Robbins, Vista jail chaplain and founder of Welcome Home Ministries. "She had been crying and she was so depressed, but there was this instant connection between us. Many of the women are so discouraged when they first see me, they don't even feel like talking."
But Cavallo poured her heart out. She talked mostly about her daughters, 11 and 12, who after her arrest went to live with their father near Fresno. She didn't even have their address. Warner-Robbins told her about Welcome Home, promised to locate her children -- which she did -- then visited Cavallo's mother. In shame and anger, the woman had changed her phone number.
"My mother wanted nothing to do with me," Cavallo says. "She begged Carmen not to give me her new phone number."
Warner-Robbins promised, but she continued to talk with Cavallo's mother and other relatives. Together, they cried and prayed.
"Carmen made the peace," says Cavallo, and her mother eventually agreed to pay for the monitoring equipment that allowed Cavallo to return home under house arrest.
Welcome Home has touched Cavallo's mother, too.
"Suzie knows what she did is wrong and she is more responsible," Agnes Moore says. "I trust her more."
Cavallo must meet other goals before society accepts her as a contributing citizen. She must stay sober, find a job and complete a drug rehabilitation program -- in short, build a new life.
Cavallo survives the 1997 Christmas holidays without her children by re-establishing contact with her siblings, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and being encouraged by the Welcome Home sorority. She feels secure knowing Warner-Robbins is always available to talk.
"Carmen is a great support," she says. "I can talk with her about lots of things I can't talk to my mom about."
Cavallo's determination is tested when her boyfriend, jailed a few days before she was, comes home Jan. 1 on probation from an honor camp. She is eager to see him, but knows how easily she could be caught up in his troubles. He has no job or a place to stay, but these are his problems.
"I have memories of us getting high together, doing drugs and getting in trouble," she says. "I miss him a lot -- he's got a good heart and treats me like a queen -- but we both have problems. I'm not sure what will happen, but I have to concentrate on my life. I've already lost a lot -- my kids for one -- and I won't do anything to jeopardize that."
The court forbids Cavallo's children from visiting her in Oceanside, but the judge didn't say that she can't visit them. But with no car and little money, such a trip seems impossible until Warner-Robbins volunteers to drive her. Having a prison chaplain along helps persuade the girls' father to let the visit occur.
A mid-January rainstorm makes the six-hour trip to Fresno seem unending, and Cavallo is nervous as they pull into the driveway of the raisin farm. Mother and daughters embrace awkwardly for the first time in six months, but Cavallo clings to them both. Gianna, 13, remains somewhat reserved, but high-spirited Amanda, 12, begs her mom to inspect her bedroom and school work. Under Warner-Robbins' watchful guidance, mother and daughters talk, window-shop, lunch and go to the movies. Then it is time to go.
"It was really hard to leave, and I cried a lot," Cavallo says later, " but Carmen knew what to say to me. She told me to think of the visit as a beginning."
By mid-February, Cavallo is enrolled in a drug-abuse rehabilitation program called Probationers in Recovery (PIR). It's demanding, and she worries about meeting its weekly requirements. She must attend three probation classes and two 12-step meetings, take at least one more drug test, and work nearly full time.
"It feels good to work -- I'm back on the right track," says Cavallo, who will be a receptionist at H&R Block in Vista until April 15. "But I feel overwhelmed with PIR and their demands. I called my counselor and said I didn't want to go to class. I went to an AA meeting instead. I hope in a year I can look back on this and it will be all over."
The recovery program can impose punishments such as curfews, mandatory residential drug treatment, freeway trash pick-up and even jail if particpants don't attend or finish assignments.
"The program is intensive," says Cavallo's probation officer Dick Emerick, "but if Suzie is serious, she can complete it in 6 1/2 months."
Making the right choices is tough -- like the time Cavallo was forced to forgo a court date concerning custody of her daughters for a PIR class and drug test. She agonized over the choice, but was encouraged when "Mr. Emerick told me that he guarantees I'll get the kids back if I finish this program."
Through all of this, Cavallo keeps in touch with Welcome Home through its prayer groups, social functions and calls to Warner-Robbins.
"It helps to talk about it," she says. "It gets it out of your system. That's something I never did before."
A second visit with her daughters in Fresno helps Cavallo keep up her spirits. This time she has the money to rent a car and drive herself.
"I promised Amanda I'd go to her softball games, and I talked to Gianna about me using drugs," she says. "This visit we spent a little time alone. We played games and laughed more. I felt something coming back in our relationship. They need to trust me again, and one way of doing that is staying clean."
It's April, and Cavallo is making Easter baskets for her daughters. The girls will meet her at her sister's house in Bakersfield. Letting the girls travel to meet their mom means her ex-husband's trust is growing.
Cavallo needs to start job-hunting again because the H&R Block job ends April 15. She has applied at 24 Hour Fitness, Hollywood Video and Wal-Mart, but so far, nothing.
"I had to tell them (Wal Mart) about the felony with theft," she says. "That was hard, but you have to be honest. A lot of places will hire you if you've just been convicted of drug charges, but not when there's a theft."
Cavallo thinks about returning to school, too, but is hesitant. Her drug program counselor urges her to find out what re-entry courses she needs and report that to the class.
She doesn't see her boyfriend often because he doesn't have a car, either. She worries because he attends no recovery program and has no support system like Welcome Home. If he did, she says, he'd have the confidence to look for a better job.
"He has too much idle time, and idle time can get you in trouble," she says. "I see me moving forward and leaving him behind and that's scary - but I didn't come out of jail to fail."
By early June, Cavallo has completed 80 percent of her 12-step meetings and 46 of the 78 classes required to graduate from the drug recovery program. Several of her classmates have been sent to in-patient drug programs or jail - or just dropped out of sight. But Cavallo earns her third perfect-attendance certificate.
"Some days are harder than others," she says, "but I feel I'm doing better. The frustration is in not having a job or a car. It takes forever to get a bus."
In a few days, she will interview with a property management firm. Once she gets a job, she'll be able to afford weekend counseling with her daughters, whom she's visited every month since January. Her ex-husband has agreed to let the girls visit her in Oceanside, but 11-year-old Amanda is reluctant to come. "She has real bad memories of when she was here. She's afraid I'll get arrested again."
Cavallo is saddened, but not defeated.
"It seems like I just go through one hoop and there's always another," she says, "but I've already gone through the toughest parts, so I guess I can deal with this."
If she continues on course, she'll appear before a board in August and receive approval for the "aftercare" phase of her program and graduate in October.
"I will be there, definitely," she resolves.
It's been a long wait, but Cavallo lands a job at a San Marcos company in mid-July. She answers phones, files and mails invoices, among other things.
"My boss knows everything about me, and they want to give me a chance," she says.
Her drug program counselor has given her permission to skip Monday morning's meeting and go to work because she is doing so well. She is eager to prove she is responsible, and begins to plan for counseling sessions because "I want them to come here and visit. I want to buy a car and get an apartment. These are all goals that I've set for myself."
Sept. 2 -- a long-awaited day. Cavallo sits nervously before a 10-member board as they pose questions about her drug recovery: What have you learned from the program? How will you stay drug-free? What would you say to someone just entering the program? How do you handle the urge to get high?
She answers each question, emphasizing that learning to express feelings and to discuss problems has changed her approach to life.
"Opening up and sharing has been the hardest part of the program," said Cavallo, whose had her hair cut and styled for the occasion. "I thought I didn't need this class, but I learned I did."
The vote to send Cavallo to after-care is unanimous, and she emerges from the room with a big smile.
"I don't think my girls will ever know what I've gone through, but that's good."
She's got a secondhand car that makes getting to work much easier, and she'll attend after-care classes in the evening so she can boost her hours at the San Marcos business. The first weekend counseling session with her children is scheduled.
Cavallo's next goal: graduation in mid-October.