By Lacey Sikora
On Feb. 24, SisterHouse, a recovery community assisting women overcoming addiction, celebrated its relocation from Austin to Oak Park with an open house for staff, their board, residents, alumna and the community.
The move into the former convent of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Parish at 25 Washington Blvd. was a long time coming, and Executive Director Lisa Steward-Baugh says the new space allows the organization to put more women on a path to life without drugs and alcohol.
SisterHouse was founded in 1982 by Sister Anne Mayer and remains a sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Sr. Anne taught literacy for years at the Cook County Jail and noticed that women who left the jail often cycled back into the prison system, when they returned to their old behaviors after being released.
Convinced there was a way to break the cycle, she asked the Archdiocese of Chicago for property and was given an old convent on Leamington Avenue in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. For many years, she ran SisterHouse as a safe haven for women to transition from prison to the outside world, where she taught them basic life skills to help them be better prepared for day-to-day life.
Over the years, the SisterHouse began to focus more on helping women overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol.
"It's still Sister Anne's vision. If you empower women and give them the appropriate tools, they will empower their households, and this will, in turn, empower the community," Steward-Baugh said of Sr. Anne's legacy at SisterHouse.
As the organization aged and sized out of the Austin location, SisterHouse began to look for new space. The St. Catherine-St. Lucy convent offered the right amount of space, but had not been used as living quarters since the 1970s.
Steward-Baugh says it took about four years to get the building ready for residents again, and adds that the former sleeping cells of the convent allow the perfect space for women to have their own private rooms while sharing communal spaces like a kitchen, TV room and meeting rooms.
Long-term resident Constance Franklin has lived in SisterHouse for 14 months and says that living together with others in the same situation is like living with family.
"Living with a lot of women can be challenging, but we resolve our issues and try to live like sisters," Franklin said. "We can help each other think about where we used to be and how far we've come."
Like many residents at SisterHouse, Franklin has struggled with addiction multiple times, but this is her first stay at SisterHouse. She describes herself as an addict who functioned well: able to keep a job and rent her own apartment.
When her employer cut her hours and she couldn't afford her rent, her struggle with drugs led her to decide to turn her life around. A 28-day stint in a detox program led her to interview for residency in SisterHouse's recovery program.
Steward-Baugh says that there are some entry requirements for SisterHouse.
"We have a capacity for 15 single women," Steward-Baugh said. "We take people from all backgrounds looking to free themselves from alcohol and drugs. They are required to have at least twenty-eight days clean at a minimum. Most of our referrals come from detox programs or probation programs."
She says that she lays out the rules in an initial phone screening to determine if a woman will be a good fit for the program.
"For the first 30 days, they have no access to cell phones," Steward-Baugh said. "We find out who is serious really quickly when we tell them that rule. Early recovery is a very sensitive time, and women need to focus on themselves. Outside disturbances can make recovery short-lived."
After a phone screening, prospective residents are invited to visit SisterHouse for an interview. Once admitted, Steward-Baugh says residents can stay for up to two years. She notes that SisterHouse is the only residential program in Chicago offering that long of a program, but she thinks it is beneficial to address addiction and issues that often go hand and hand with recovery.
"It's not only stopping using, but working on the underlying issues [like] low self-esteem, sexual abuse and trauma," Steward-Baugh said.
Franklin credits the structure of the program with helping her learn to be independent. Through SisterHouse's affiliation with Cara, an organization aimed at helping people affected by poverty, incarceration and recovery find quality employment, she learned job and budgeting skills. She has been employed for seven months in housekeeping and has worked to build up savings.
Steward-Baugh says that employment and educational programs are key for SisterHouse residents.
"Through Cara, they learn job skills, how to interview, how to write a resume and how to dress for success," Steward-Baugh said. "We have a 98-percent success rate for placing our residents in jobs. We also work on credit reports and saving so that the women are prepared for the transition back to the outside world."
On top of the life skills, SisterHouse residents receive intensive counseling. Through outpatient services they get one-on-one counseling tailored to their specific needs. Women also attend Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and stay connected to sponsors.
For Franklin, who is preparing to transition to the outside world. SisterHouse has made a world of difference.
"I'm doing good, and I'm happy," Franklin said. "I was able to repair my relationship with my daughter."
New resident Tiffany Nichols has only been at SisterHouse six days, but she is already getting into the routine. Mornings begin with meditation and breakfast and time for meetings or intensive outpatient therapy.
After a communal lunch, the women participate in group meetings or classes on such topics as finances, self-defense and drug addiction.
Nichols says she has been in treatment for addiction many times but has always relapsed upon leaving treatment and returning to her former life. At her last treatment center, she says, "Everyone was talking about SisterHouse and how it had an outstanding rate of people making it."
In her short time at SisterHouse, Nichols has already participated in finance and self-defense classes
"This is very structured so we can learn how to do this on our own," she said. "I want to learn how to manage money, how to get an apartment, how to stay clean and sober."
For her, the communal living part of recovery has been promising.
"When I met all the sisters, it was like we are all family here," Nicholas said. "I feel like all of us are the same in some ways. We can offer each other coping tips and encouragement. It's really helpful to see others doing this. It's new to me, but for those who have been here longer, to see them succeed is very helpful."
Steward-Baugh hopes that this week's open house was helpful to remove some of the stigma associated with addiction recovery and helped people visualize that recovering addicts are real people.
She plans to continue this community outreach with a series of talks every third Thursday of the month. The first breakfast with the executive director will be held at SisterHouse, 25 Washington Blvd., on Thursday, March 21 at 10 a.m. until noon. and will highlight Women's History Month.
This article has been updated, Friday, March 1, at 2:10 p.m.
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