- Ginger Hill – Peace House Manager
Ginger, a pug puppy name Boo, and I sit together on a sectional couch in the living room at Peace House. This place, a former convent for Catholic Sisters, is the companion residence to Journey House. Sunlight streams through the windows and sweeps across a wall-mounted TV, the huge dining table, and a grouping of comfortable chairs.
Ginger is the House Manager here. She has wavy, coppery hair and a radiant smile. Throughout our talk I am struck by how carefully and thoughtfully she speaks and the way she asks for clarification of my questions. I am soon to learn her answers and her smile are hard-earned.
Ginger’s story is not good by the way it starts, but by the way it ends.
You have a unique perspective. You’ve been in prison, a resident at Journey House and now in this respected position of House Manager.
(Smiles) Right! So, I’ll start by saying I love it here. It’s so peaceful. It’s my first job where I like everybody. We get such love and support from the nuns and the Journey to New Life staff. Nick, who was my former caseworker when I first got out of prison, is now my co-worker! (Ginger gazes around the expansive living room.) I never expected this could happen to me.
Let’s begin with your history - your early years, family, how you got in trouble…
We traveled a lot when I was little. My dad was in the military, so we lived in Germany for a while. I was never very close with my parents. I had three sisters. One is much older and I rarely see her. During my twenties I had two kids by different guys - first a daughter who is almost twenty now and then a son. I’m still close to my son’s father but we never lived together. I was a single mom. After a while I thought maybe I should do something with my life, so I went to nursing school and became an RN.
That was quite an accomplishment!
Yep. But during the last year of my schooling, I met this guy, D----, who needed somewhere to stay. I thought maybe I could help him so he moved in. We eventually hooked up, and then he became extremely abusive. I saw this change happening - a blackness would come over him. Paranoia. He imagined that I was whispering about him behind his back to another guy who happened to be at the house. There was lots of drinking and drug use. He knocked me unconscious, strangling me, so some of the things that happened I don’t even really remember. I went to the hospital with black eyes and a severely dislocated arm in two places. (Ginger touches her temple.) I have a plate here because he shattered my eye socket. He stomped my legs - extreme bruising and injury. Head butting. Immense physical trauma. My daughter actually witnessed some of this. I think she suffers PTSD from it still. I also have PTSD.
(Ginger describes taking her daughter to her grandmother to get away. She shared many more details of rages and abusive incidents occurring over the course of five years, both before and after D---- went to prison. They are not all included here.)
Was trauma a part of your life growing up? Your parents or others?
I witnessed lots of physical violence within my extended family, but my personal abuse was with D----. My drug use became very heavy and very bad. I used to cope, but sadly to say, I still functioned as a nurse. I worked in Psych which I really liked. In fact, at one point they were about to make me night supervisor on the Psych Ward at the hospital in St. Louis. Anyway, eventually, because of all my injuries and my initial trip to the hospital, the cops became involved. They came to my house. D---- went to prison for two years on domestic violence charges. DFS (Division of Family Services) intervened. My daughter went with my mom and my son was with his dad. They took away the only thing I had to live for. Then my older sister, who was my best friend, died. She was only thirty-nine. She passed away two months after my children were taken.
How did that happen?
She had tried suicide before, so maybe it was an overdose. She also had leukemia which was in remission, and a blood-clotting disorder. We don’t know the cause for sure. They didn’t do an autopsy. My spirit was totally broken I lost my nursing credentials. I became severely suicidal. I even asked my kids what they might want of mine should I not be around someday. My daughter wanted my record collection and my son wanted my cameras. I spiraled down. Homeless. I kept using. I revisited the places where bad things had happened in the past. I made meth and traded it for staying at friends’ houses. I got into more trouble with the law for drugs. But instead of choosing suicide, I went on the run and eventually I went to prison.
What was prison like for you? Maybe a respite from the mess?
At the time, I thought it was horrible. Adult daycare. My first incarceration, I served sixteen months on two five-year sentences that ran concurrently. At the time, I didn’t see any value in it, but now I realize it did save my life. It removed me from everything. I didn’t have to worry about my next meal or where I was going to sleep or look over my shoulder because I was on the run. I started to think about what was important to me. Prison itself doesn’t really help you, but you can learn to help yourself. You get close to the other women there and you help each other. Prison also can create problems for you.
What kind of problems?
They toss your cell. They wake you up all night for headcounts. You’re packed in. No privacy. Long lines. Really loud. And most all of us have PTSD. I am getting Trauma Therapy for it now.
This sounds like the opposite of how you describe it here – so peaceful!
Exactly. I did go to church a few times my first time in prison and I took a trauma class. People I knew died while I was in there. Two months before I got out, my nephew - the son of my sister who died, hung himself in my parents’ carport. I mean, when I got out, I did not feel right. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. Huge anxiety. My home-plan was at my mom’s house in Jefferson County. People I knew who were in their own addictions had sold some of my stuff, my sentimental things and the SIM cards from my cameras - my photos. My storage locker was flooded. I was mad, but now I have perspective on it. All of this was also a burden on my parents.
Is it common for someone released from incarceration to discover that their belongings have been taken or sold while they were away?
Yes, it’s very common. I was on parole, of course, but somehow, I still thought, “I got this. I’m so smart. I can play the system. I can keep using, and just plan around my mandatory urine tests, so they’ll be negative.” But I got in trouble again… Sitting in that county jail cell before I was transferred back to prison again for fifteen months, it dawned on me: “I don’t have this. I do not have control! I think I do; I think I know what I am doing in my life, but I don’t. I need to stop fighting.” This is when I started getting into God. I prayed to God, “I am going to give you control.” I had a God box in county jail and then in prison. I think it was a sugar packet box. We made a slit in the top to put notes in. I made a God box for some of the other women who were awaiting to be sentenced. When I was in jail and again when I went to prison, I made a little God box. (Smiles.) I have no idea where the idea came from, maybe something I saw or read… I don’t really know.
Was it literally a box?
What did you do with it?
Every time I worried, I wrote the worry down and put it in the box. I gave everything over to God. Other girls did it, too. We just found a way to make those boxes.
What happened then?
Well, I made the decision that I would not go back home to Jefferson County when I got released. A girl I talked to told me about Journey House in Kansas City. She said, “They give you a cell phone right when you get out! It’s good there.” That sounded great… especially the phone! So, a home-plan at Journey House got set in my mind. I held a vision of it for the future. Eventually I had an interview with Georgia Walker and was accepted when I got released. And other things started to happen… I thought there was nothing productive in prison, but actually I was chosen to take an Industrial Electrical Training Course. It was a job I could possibly do when I got out! Another thing…. I was never very close to my parents. I put up barriers, especially with my mom. Our phone conversations when I was in prison could piss me off really quick. But I decided to change the dynamic. When she answered the phone, I just said, “Hi, Beautiful!” And…. I mean, everything started to change! It was amazing. And, of course, now my parents are very proud of me. They tell me so. They’re very supportive. My son has visited me here. He says he forgives me.
Maybe you should say, “Hello, Beautiful,” to every new resident who comes in the door!
Well, it’s funny. (Big smile.) I told my sister about it, and now, she says it to me. It works! My daughter gave me a mug for Mother’s Day or maybe it was my birthday that says, “Good Morning Beautiful!” She also went to an Elton John concert recently and recorded him singing “Tiny Dancer” for me. It’s my favorite song. Back when I moved into Journey House and even now, I still have an on-going conversation with God all day - my fears, gratefulness, pain.
So, you replaced your little box with talking to God.
Right. When I graduated from Journey after four months, I got my own apartment and a good job at a place called Crazy Crab. I was a manager and I kept getting raises. But Georgia Walker had an idea. She said, “Ever since I met you, Ginger, I knew I was going to do something with you, although I wasn’t exactly sure what!” She brought me here to check out Peace House before it opened and asked if I’d consider becoming House Manager. I said, “Thank you for taking a chance on me for this position.” But I also thought, “Do I want to leave my other job and live with a bunch of women again?” But helping people is a thread in me. It’s why I became a nurse. I quit Crazy Crab and came here where it’s one-on-one with the ladies. When I was a nurse, it was mostly paperwork and documentation. The nurse’s aides did the real one-on-one. What I honestly truly feel for myself is that this is where God directed me. Besides having this House Manager job, the Journey to New Life staff will help with any other opportunities for personal growth like going back to school or job training and advancement.
Would other gals at Journey House want a job like yours?
Yes! Absolutely. They tell me, “If you need another person let me know.”
(I read from a list I’ve brought with me.) Here are the qualities Georgia told me she looks for in a House Manager: gentleness, positive disposition, helpful, not cynical, strong intuition about others, solid experience of one’s own recovery, dependability. Peer Support Specialist training.
(Smiles) That’s sweet. I definitely feel like a mother hen. Coming out is so hard.
Name the hard stuff.
The bus! Google maps and GPS immediately freak everybody out. Sometimes I ride the bus with them until they get the hang of it. Another thing is the overwhelming number of choices at places like Walmart and the grocery store. In prison you have no choices. Learning computer logistics and navigating around in a new environment are really difficult, especially if you are not from Kansas City. Filling out job applications online is tough. I mean, I love paper job applications. But I tell women here to walk in and hand the application in face-to-face so the employer can see that, “I am not a statistic. Look me in the face. Take a chance on me. I am a hard worker.” One girl here has had three job interviews develop by going in.
The constricted prison life does not prepare you for the outside world.
A potential employer’s imagination might take off in the wrong direction if they see a history of incarceration on an online job application.
Yes. They see that and think that she must have deserved to be in there. Instead, they need to see us as individuals. That’s why the overall attitude of Journey House and Peace House is so essential. When you first walk in you are accepted with no judgment. The staff wants you. They want the best for you. It’s a rare feeling. It really hits you. It grows your confidence. Crystal (the other manager at Peace House at the time of this interview) and I pick up our residents when they step off the prison van at the bus station. We start talking right then and there. “Whatever you need, we are here to help. We know you’re anxious. We’ve been in your shoes. You can choose to take advantage of the amazing support. You can feel better.” I try to keep communicating so they won’t withdraw. The nurse part of me is a good observer. I want them to trust me. I share about my life. Many have had similar experiences. They will get healthier with free medical service for a year. They will get rehab and possibly connect with their kids. Journey to New Life pays for all their dental work so they can smile again!
Do you think you’ve found your calling?
What are your thoughts about the concept of Living Amends - reflecting and responding to the ways our behaviors affect others? Reparations are complicated when you can’t go back and literally fix something.
I believe if you can’t fix it, you can forgive yourself. Let it go, because your mind is your worst enemy. Living forward doesn’t negate the past, but if you keep doing the next right thing people will come back to you. You can bring goodness into the world. But, you know, I just… uh… even though I’m here I still feel like something is missing. I Googled “churches” and decided to try one called Grace Way. It was hard just walking in. I knew nobody. One woman I met in the parking lot helped me feel welcome. The sermon spoke right to me. I joined a small group where we talk about finding our purpose in life. Everybody feels lonely and remorseful at times. I know for me that I need to help people. It’s what works for me.
So just doing your time in prison or jail is a narrow idea of having truly paid for something you’ve done. It also doesn’t address the harm that has been done to you.
Right. There’s much more to it. I have even forgiven D----. I told him many times, “You need to deal with your demons.” And… I have told him that I forgive him...
The Drive Home:
During our wide-ranging conversation, my mind moved from Ginger’s calm, welcoming expression, to chilling imaginings of her smashed eyes, and bloody, broken face. I pictured her lying crushed and unconscious. I felt rage and disbelief picturing the scene of her asking her children what they wished to inherit - them not realizing she was orchestrating her suicide.
Long after our conversation this question remained:
“What, exactly, was in Ginger’s little box?”
What alchemy transformed her years of worry and extreme suffering into a calling?
And then it came clear.
Hidden in her box was a mirror…