Bridget Stephens has so much to celebrate.
In 2010, Stephens was released after a six-month prison term, and began taking the first steps of recovery from a 19-year drug addiction. She continues on her successful journey at St. Leonard’s Ministries, a nonprofit that helps people who have been incarcerated rebuild their lives.
“When you create a dignified, affirming space, people come alive”: How St. Leonard’s provides a fresh start
At St. Leonard’s, Stephens received vocational and life skills training, an affordable place to live and a new job. Most important, she has found the support to help her remain sober.
“If someone would have told me this would be my life ten years ago, I would have told them ‘No way.’ Because I couldn’t see past the next day,” Stephens says. “But to be able to be on this journey, I’m just grateful.”
Stephens, who is 46, is reaping the benefits of affordable housing and employment programs supported in part by the Unity Fund, the Trust’s annual campaign to help neighbors who have suffered economic setbacks get back on their feet and build more stable lives.
“We’re the embodiment of what we call a second chance. When you create a dignified, affirming space, people come alive.”
Through generous donors to the Unity Fund, St. Leonard’s has received funding to provide supportive services to clients living at its Harvest Commons affordable housing complex, located in the landmark Viceroy Hotel.
Thanks to a partially subsidized apartment at Harvest Commons, Stephens has the stability to pursue culinary training and a job as a barista, which puts her new skills to work. St. Leonard’s also helps her maintain her sobriety by ensuring that she has access to recovery support groups and services.
Her next stop: Studying for her GED test, with the support of prep courses offered through St. Leonard’s—a first step towards reaching her dream of earning a college degree.
Bridget Stephens spent six months in prison, and 19 years struggling with drug addiction. St. Leonard’s Ministries has provided her with affordable housing, support programs for her recovery, and the optimism to look ahead to success.
The Harvest Commons affordable housing complex was brought to fruition in part through a partnership between St. Leonard’s Ministries and Heartland Housing—a connection facilitated by The Chicago Community Trust, in order to ensure the most efficient use of resources.
Over the course of three years, Trust grant recipient Heartland Housing transformed the historic Viceroy Hotel into affordable housing for people who were homeless and those recently released from prison, like Stephens. The Trust helped fund the renovation of the six-story building, transforming it into the 89-unit Harvest Commons, where Heartland provides St. Leonard’s Ministries 17 apartments on the second floor.
“It was a risk for Heartland to partner with an organization such as St. Leonard’s that works solely with formerly incarcerated individuals,” says Bob Dougherty, director of development for St. Leonard’s. “It was also a good match because of Heartland’s commitment to helping people in need.”
“This is a fresh start, and I don’t want to be just mediocre. I want to get my footing in society. My dreams are open.”
St. Leonard’s believes that job training and housing programs like these can spark their clients’ aspirations and help them develop a positive outlook on their own future—the mission of St. Leonard’s for 60 years.
“We’re the embodiment of what we call a second chance,” Dougherty says. “When you create a dignified, affirming space, people come alive in a way they were not able to do before.”
Toney Evans, 38, knows that firsthand. Evans discovered the programs at St. Leonard’s during the final months of her 13-year prison sentence. In her first six months of freedom, Evans has been working on earning her certification as a barista, as well as building life skills.
Her long-term goal is to earn a college degree, and start her own business—maybe a bakery.
“This is a fresh start, and I don’t want to be just mediocre,” Evans says. “I want to get my footing in society. My dreams are open.”