JUNEAU — Juneauite Kara Nelson went through a lot after prison. Having spent almost three years in Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River for drug offenses, she’s well acquainted with the feelings of remorse, guilt and worthlessness — accompanied by mountains of paperwork — that await on the other side of a stint in the system.
“It’s not even just society stigmatizing you as a felon — it’s yourself,” Nelson said.
She was released in 2008 and relocated to Juneau to meet up with her family, who had moved from Ketchikan. And since 2010, she’s made it her goal to make sure every woman coming out of Alaska’s prison system has a second chance at a successful life — just like she had.
“There are so many pieces to put together,” Nelson said. “That’s what I love about Haven House. Ah, I love it. I love sharing my freedom with others.”
Haven House Juneau is a faith-based nonprofit established in 2010 and co-directed by Nelson and Anne Flaherty. The organization’s goal is to provide transitional housing for women on the other side of Alaska’s prison system.
“We’re there to give hope to women and give them a chance to change their lives,” board President June Degnan said.
The organization — led by a board of nine — had the enthusiasm, the research and the backers. But they were missing one thing: a house.
That is, until Christmas when Nelson got the news that an anonymous donor had committed to purchasing a $380,000, six-bedroom Mendenhall Valley home for the organization. Haven House had had its sights set on it for months.
“It was like a Christmas present,” Nelson said.
Nelson and Degnan received the keys to the house Monday afternoon. The two-level home has a covered deck, multiple fire places, large, open community spaces and many rooms, which will house up to nine women total.
Degnan said she had her heart set on the house since she first saw in in November.
“I walked into this house and I said, ‘This is the place,’” she said.
Living at the group home will provide structure for women as they transition back into the community, Nelson said. The house will be equipped with computers for job searching, community meetings will take place each week, and daily chores will be a requirement, she said. Residents will receive counseling through Juneau organizations. And all residents must sign in and out of the house. A Haven House staff member will be on site 24 hours per day, Nelson said.
“I can already see how things are going to go here,” Nelson said, smiling and looking around the downstairs living room.
Now that Haven House has a place to call home, the next step is to furnish it so women can move in. Nelson plans to open the doors in mid-March, but if a woman needs a place before that, the organization will make it work, she said.
On Jan. 10, the Juneau Community Foundation announced it would provide a matching grant of up to $10,000 to Haven House. This means the organization will receive a dollar from Juneau Community Foundation for every dollar it raises itself, up to $10,000, by Feb. 28. The money will be used to furnish the house and get it ready for women to move in.
“It’s a project that’s addressing a community need and something we don’t have here in Juneau,” foundation Executive Director Amy Skilbred said. “It’s great when we can support needs that are unmet.”
Nelson said she is “overwhelmed” with the way the organization’s plans are working out.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “Today’s an exciting day for me.”
Haven House has received letters of support from many organizations, such as Northern Light United Church, Gastineau Human Services, Love, Inc., Juneau Reentry Coalition, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, Juneau Coalition on Housing and Homelessness and the Alaska Department of Corrections, among others, Nelson said. The organization is applying for many grants, Degnan said.
“There’s a huge amount of help here, but it’s not centralized,” Nelson said. “Since I’ve been through all these programs and I know everyone we have a huge amount of resources.”
Haven House already has residency applications on hand at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, Ketchikan Correctional Center and Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. All women leaving the system are welcome to apply to live in the house, but there will be an interview process, Nelson said.
“They will have to have the desire to change their life,” she said.
In the process of bettering the lives of other female ex-prisoners, Nelson has completely turned her life around, she said. This was a big month for her: On top of the new house, she finished her felony probation Jan. 1.
“I’m very proud of my recovery,” Nelson said. “Often I think recovery is shut away in little rooms. I think it’s important to shout it from the rooftops. Two years ago I wouldn’t have said that, but today I do.”