Out of prison, on their own, Journey House women go back to nuns for Christmas

A home for Christmas

Brandi Smith thanks the nuns of Kansas City's Journey House for giving her a second chance after prison. She's on her own this Christmas and back with her daughter, Alexis.
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Brandi Smith thanks the nuns of Kansas City's Journey House for giving her a second chance after prison. She's on her own this Christmas and back with her daughter, Alexis.

Through flurries and freezing cold, Brandi Smith walks to the warm snuggle of a little girl’s hug.

Alexis, 9, gets off the school bus and there’s Mom.

“Our first snow day,” Smith says and throws her arms around Alexis, who buries a smile in her mother’s neck.

These two head home. Their home, finally.

Christmas a year ago, Smith was in prison and Alexis lived with her grandmother.

“I love being here because I’m with my mom,” Alexis, a fourth-grader, said minutes later in the cozy, upstairs Kansas City apartment with the little white Christmas tree in the corner. She dug through her backpack for school papers to show her mother.

Smith smiled. She’s where she wants to be, too, and knows she would not be there if not for the Journey House, the place that took her in after prison, the place she says saved her.

“I had nowhere to go,” Smith said. “The sisters there, they didn’t judge me. They cared about me and my daughter and they didn’t even know her.

“I thank God every day for that place.”

A year ago, no one was quite sure about a new experiment called Journey House: Take a bunch of older nuns from convents and put them in a large midtown home to live with young women who had been beaten, molested, hooked on drugs and were fresh out of prison.

The nuns would help the women get jobs, go to school and stay clean. Most of all, the nuns would give them hope.

Today the house on Beacon Hill is a place of early morning coffee, mad dashes to the bus stop, parole officer visits, tears, big dinners, drug tests, cigarettes on the patio, sweet talks, slips of a dirty word and the occasional foray into the late night.

The nuns have seen parts of town they didn’t know existed.

“Oh, it’s different,” said Sister Martha Niemann, the oldest of the nuns at 88. She came to Journey from the calm of the St. Therese Little Flower convent. “There’s always something going on and you never know what to expect.

“But I feel peaceful here. I get that from these beautiful women. They’ve given me as much as I’ve given them.”

She smiled: “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Full house

Journey is not a halfway house — do ex-cons go back to a halfway house for a Christmas party?

Last week, Journey alums did just that. They laughed and cried and hugged the nuns who lifted them up when down was all they knew. Nicole Harlan walked nearly 20 blocks to get there — and it was 8 degrees.

“I wasn’t going to miss it — it’s Journey House,” said Harlan, who started doing methamphetamine with a foster brother when she was in the fourth grade and later spent eight years in prison. “I love those nuns. They’re my family now and I wouldn’t miss Christmas with them.”

Now 35, living on her own, working and preparing to begin welding school in January, Harlan said landing at Journey was the best thing that ever happened to her.

“It was scary to leave because all the bad things are still out there,” she said. “But it was my time to go and those women there, they made me want to be like them.”

The place is full. Always. Fifteen women at a time, all ages, nonviolent offenders, mostly from the Chillicothe (Mo.) Correction Center.

“We’re booked solid till next May,” said Georgia Walker, a former nun and executive director of Journey to New Life, the organization that started the house.

“Women sometimes stay in prison longer than they have to because they have no place to go.”

A typical stay at Journey is three months. Last week, the 116th woman walked in with a suitcase. That means nearly a hundred have passed through since it opened.

Smith remembers clearly that morning last March when she arrived. She had been taken from the prison in Chillicothe to the downtown bus station. It was cold, the sun barely up.

Walker met her. Smith, true to her low self-esteem, silently climbed into the car’s back seat. Walker looked back at her.

“Can I get in the front?” Smith finally asked.

“Yes, Brandi,” Walker told her.

Smith teared up when she told that story.

“She knew my name,” she said.

During her first few days at Journey, Smith was scared to leave for fear she would somehow miss curfew and be sent back to prison.

One year in

A recent morning, women hustled about Journey’s busy kitchen. Lilly, a little white dog, dodged all the busy feet, and Georgia Walker and Sister Rose McLarney sat at the big dining table in the next room and talked about the first year.

They started the place after the Missouri Department of Corrections announced it would convert what had been a halfway-house release center for men and women at 651 Mulberry St. into a men-only prison.

That meant women might have to stay in prison longer than necessary because a requirement for release is that they have a place to go.

“So many of them have burned bridges,” McLarney said. “They had no family to take them in. Some are dealing with mental illness and drug addiction.”

About the same time as the conversion of the Mulberry Street facility, the Society of St. Pius X was looking for a buyer for an old building on Tracy Avenue that had been used for priest training. When Walker first pitched the idea for Journey House, others told her she was crazy.

Didn’t matter anyway because Journey to New Life, with offices in the 3100 block of Troost, didn’t have the money to buy the place anyway.

Then an anonymous donor stepped up and wrote a check for $347,000.

Now, it’s been a year.

Numbers: Federal government statistics put the three-year national recidivism rate at about 68 percent. That means about two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Journey House has been around only one year, but so far has a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent. The reasons for the handful who have been sent back to prison are technical — mostly because of missed meetings with parole or probation officers.

Only one woman has a new criminal offense.

“Every day we see these women rise from adversity to put their lives back in order and watching that happen gives us as much hope as it does them,” McLarney said. “I’ve heard their stories and if what happened to them happened to me, I’d probably be just like them.”

One woman was introduced to heroin by her father when she was 11 and to prostitution when she was 16.

Prison doesn’t help these women at all, Walker said.

“If only we could get them before they go there,” she added.

‘I’m happy’

The nuns at Journey House?

“They ask for nothing — they just give and give,” said Carnika Turner, a case manager for Journey to New Life.

She works with the women, including Smith, when they leave the house and is constantly amazed at how much they change during their stay.

“They arrive beaten down by so much abuse — sexual, emotional, physical — have nobody in their lives, but when they leave it is a triumph,” she said. “They are ready to go out there and make a life for themselves. Their stories are what keep me going.”

When a woman leaves Journey, she gets help with rent and utilities for a couple of months. Then she is on her own. Last month, Smith paid her first gas and electrical bills.

“It made me feel normal,” she said, smiling. “I was proud.”

Starting at age 2, she lived in 33 foster homes. One sister’s dead, another’s in prison. She never met her father. Her mother?

“I’ve learned to forgive,” she said. “But she always fought to get us back and everything that happened to me is who I am today.”

She recently visited her mother in Wellington, Mo.

Court records show that in 2014, Smith was convicted of stealing a thousand dollars from the liquor store where she worked. She says she did so because her family needed money for rent and utilities.

She was sentenced to five years in prison.

Her two other children live with their father in another state. Photos of both sit on a table in her apartment just off Troost.

Smith, who earned a GED in prison, looked forward to these holidays with Alexis. Christmas in prison is like any other day, she said. Turkey and music don’t change that. They just remind you of where you aren’t.

She works in a food service job, so it’s not like she’s rolling in holiday dough this Christmas.

“But I have us a home and we’re warm,” she said. “I’m broke but I’m happy.”

She paused.

“My biggest fear now is that I’ll mess up and my daughter will end up like me.”

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182