Each woman staying at Soldotna’s Freedom House has a different story. She may have been homeless, have lost her kids, damaged relationships with friends and family, been suicidal or just come out of prison.
A thread runs throughout all the women’s stories, however — a desire to overcome addiction through faith.
The Soldotna-based Christian recovery residence, which opened in May, is the vision of Jennifer Waller, a former addict who uses her faith to help others struggling with addiction.
“I was in every one of their shoes,” Waller said. “I didn’t have my kids. I was suicidal. I almost died. And God gave me hope. And to see that same hope makes it all worth it.”
Women can stay at the home, which has seven beds, for up to nine months during their road to recovery. Graduation doesn’t mean getting a diploma or staying for a certain amount of time — residents may stay for weeks or months — but is determined by when a woman has successfully transitioned to a sober lifestyle.
“Everyone’s needs are different,” Waller said.
Since Freedom House opened seven months ago, 19 women have come through its doors, although not all have made a successful transition.
“In addiction you’re not going to get 100 percent success rate,” Waller said.
Residents are subject to random breathalyzer tests, and there’s a zero-tolerance policy for those who fail. Women who relapse, however, are able to apply to live in the house again after 30 days.
The home is a place for women who are ready to “start living and not dying,” said Waller. “So we have to be very careful about keeping it safe for all of us in recovery.”
That accountability has helped many of Freedom House’s residents turn their lives around, including the home’s live-in manager.
“I was an addict for 45 years,” resident manager Kristina Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald met Waller in September 2015 at a bible study class in the Wildwood Correctional Complex. Waller was visiting the facility to teach the class; Fitzgerald was incarcerated and facing 11 years in prison for drug felonies. She ended up serving only two months for a single felony, and was released on probation. She began her volunteer work as the live-in manager at Freedom House while still on probation. Fitzgerald said her work at Freedom House helps hold her accountable through good and bad times.
“Over 45 years there were sober times, but life would happen again,” she said. “That’s why I felt so strongly about coming here, because without Christ in my life, I’m not going to remain sober.”
Danyelle Wight, the very first graduate of Freedom House, moved into the residence in May, only weeks after it opened its doors. Pregnant at the time, with four kids at home, including an infant, Wight — and the two babies — had failed a state drug test. Wight had to leave her children with their father and wasn’t allowed to live at home. After seeking treatment for her meth addiction in Juneau, she heard about Freedom House. Since arriving, she’s renewed her faith and stayed clean.
“If I wouldn’t have come here, I would have gone back to living in my van,” Wight said. “I would still have hung out with the same people, still relapsed. And I would just have been smarter about it and not failed the drug test.”
Prisilla Skura has been at the home for about four months. A former heroin addict who has been sober for 14 months, Skura became homeless after her release from Wildwood Correctional Complex.
Now, she spends her time crocheting blankets, hats and winter clothes — Christmas presents for her children. She has two teenage boys, and is working to reunited with them. Skura participates in devotions at least three times a week, attends bible study and is working to get her GED. She’s also managed to cope with one of the driving factors in her addiction — the loss of her daughter a decade ago.
“For a long time, I kept relapsing on her birthday and when she died,” she said. “And for once I’ve actually gotten through that stuff.”
Mandi Bolinder, who arrived at the home only a few weeks ago, sees divine intervention in the refuge provided by Freedom House. She said she had a mental breakdown due to postpartum depression, and was pulled over for driving while intoxicated with her infant son in the car.
“I was suicidal,” she said. “I was crying because I just lost my baby.”
A friend, whom she hadn’t spoken to in years, directed her to Freedom House.
“He just called me out of the blue,” she said. “So I know I’m supposed to be here.”
Bolinder is attending bible study, doing devotions in the mornings and going to weekly counseling. She’s working to get through the court system to regain custody of her son and start a new life.
“My goal is to have my son back and be able to get a job and my own place,” Bolinder said. “And I believe I can do it living here.”
Realizing a vision
Waller said her vision would not have been realized without an outpouring of support and donations from the community. Just to get up and running, the organization needed to raise approximately half a million dollars to create a space to house the women. After undergoing a five-month renovation, the residence is clean and spacious, filled with furniture, appliances, toiletries, even handmade quilts — all donated.
“I still wake up and wonder if it’s a dream,” Waller said. “Because of how quick it came to pass.”
With no state or federal grants, Freedom House continues to rely on donations to operate. Waller said the residence needs about $7,000 a month. A 1000-square-foot commercial space above the residence will eventually be rented out in order to provide consistent income. Right now, it hosts an ongoing rummage sale stocked with donated clothes and household goods. The organization will host a fundraiser in January, featuring a sit-down dinner, silent auction and testimonials from residents. Waller hopes to continue Freedom House’s mission in future years with a men’s transitional living facility in Soldotna. “That’s been my goal from the very beginning,” Waller said.