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In Owensboro, an Effort Focused on Women Provides a Hand Up for a 'Step Down'

Colin Jackson

Time spent incarcerated or in rehabilitation centers is common when someone makes a mistake or needs to address substance abuse issues.

"Step down" services, however, aren't as common.

Those efforts provide a place for growth and a sense of community that helps soften the transition toward independence from a rough spot in life.

The Owensboro-based non-profit, Fresh Start for Women, is among those working to accomplish that goal.

Fresh Start opened its doors to renters at its white and brick two-story apartment complex in 2016. Co-founder Cindy Jean says they take an individualized approach to the tenants.

"We don't oversee or control women. Whatever they come here as is where we try to start. And we go from there," Jean said.

The idea behind Fresh Start is pretty simple. After going through trauma that comes along with abuse, addiction, or maybe even the criminal justice system, women need a place to heal. There's no "real world" independence behind bars. Meanwhile, rehabilitation center programs might not last long enough to work through deeper issues and teach women life skills, such as budgeting.

Carol Adkins, another co-founder at Fresh Start for Women, says some of the women who seek help are behind on certain soft skills that many people take for granted.

"Some of them, it takes two and three months for them to figure out the check at the end of the month pays your rent at the beginnig of the month, and your next check goes to your utilities," Adkins said.

That's where the importance of having spaces like her organization, where people pay a discounted rent and can gain financial counseling, shines through. The group requires women who stay at their property to complete at least three programming items each week that can range from counseling to faith-based activities.

Jean says that's all above and beyond what other services have the resources to provide.

"Area rehabs, they don't have to address the issues of your finances because they're dealing with emotional issues and ...teaching you how to stay clean and sober. But now, we have to teach you how to live because you didn't learn those basic life skills at home," Jean said.

She said many of their clients are dealing with the aftereffects of generational trauma, and didn't have anyone to learn from at home.

Fresh Start aims to break that cycle by fostering independence and also rebuilding the bond between mothers and their children in a safe, drug-free environment.

"We're the only one in this area, that we're aware of, that's set up mostly for the reunification of families. That's why we have two-bedroom apartments," Adkins said.

Childless women are welcome at the male-free environment as well. That policy in place because Fresh Start has seen women struggle finding their own independence when potentially abusive partners and family members are around. As a result, all men are banned from the property.

That's something that helps put women like Sarah Bradley, who works as an assistant groundskeeper for Fresh Start, at ease.

"From my past, I was involved in abuse and my children unfrotunately were present for some of that. And being here at Fresh Start...they felt comforted too," Bradley said.

While she appreciated the difference from other places she has stayed, Bradley said other women had a tougher time and needed the help of others around them.

"We would reach out, call, we have group texting to where we can all just reach out to each other, 'Hey I need this. Can someone help me with this?' So it's a very strong connection and support group," Bradley said.

Feeling that bond can help someone successfully rebuild their life. Licensed clinical counselor Brent Garrard said, without that support, previous issues can creep back in.

"It's crucial that community members outside of those involved in recovery are a part of bringing people who are working hard in the recovery process to a place where they're able to work through their shame and process that, and understand that we're all in this together," Garrard said.

True to that spirit, many of the women at Fresh Start pay it forward with other charitable work. Bradley said she dreams of having her own ministry one day. Meanwhile, others are working their way up the company ladder.

Frantz Building Services is among the firms that hires some of the individuals receiving Fresh Start's services. 

"As any HR business manager professional can attest to, in this day and age, it's difficult to fill positions. It's difficult to find people who want to work," human resources manager Jodie Stallins said.

At Fresh Start, that drive to work is top-down, from volunteers like Adkins and Jean to the women who stay there.

Both women, among other boardmembers, have a long history in the non-profit world, and make large personal efforts to raise money for the largely donation-based work.

Among those efforts is the State Farm Neighborhood Assist contest, in which Fresh Start is a finalist. If it wins, the group could receive $25,000.

Despite being a young effort, Fresh Start's organizers are already making plans to expand. And with the community behind them, they can stay behind the community.

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