Their mission: Turning around lives

Margaret Palmer, seated, is the founder of the House of Hope where Linda Walker is the director.  The story of the founding will be part of a musical fashion show brunch, open to the public,  on March 10. LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times
Margaret Palmer, seated, is the founder of the House of Hope where Linda Walker is the director. The story of the founding will be part of a musical fashion show brunch, open to the public, on March 10. LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times
Published March 1
Updated March 3

TAMPA — When Kayla Christianson entered the House of Hope, she said she was almost "physically, emotionally and spiritually dead."

Now four months later, the 32-year-old sees her life turning around — "one day at a time" — from chronic alcoholism and some drug use.

"I was deep into addiction but God picked me up and gave me another chance," said the woman who lives in the non-profit Seminole Heights house with two other women trying to change their lives and a resident house manager.

"House of Hope is giving me structure," Christianson said. "I have everything I need: a beautiful room; my son in my life; and a support network."

She knows she is lucky to have the services of the 16-year-old organization that relies almost exclusively on donations from individuals, churches and organizations to make its $80,000 annual budget.

Recently when director Linda Walker interviewed women who had addiction and arrests for the voluntary program. Eight were eligible following the interview but the home only has room for three at a time.

In the interview, she asked direct questions such as: Are you on probation? Are you in a relationship? How willing are you to get better?

Walker said the growing opioid epidemic has increased the needs for the nonprofit.

"We wish we had a place we could help more women," Walker said . "It is different from crack cocaine. More of the women are crying in pain, need the hospital and are doctor shopping."

•••

Hillsborough House of Hope was founded by Margaret Palmer, a 91-year-old resident of Canterbury Towers on the Bayshore.

Palmer was part of a Bible Study Fellowship at her church and "when we finished the course, we were encouraged to take what we learned out to help others."

On Valentine’s Day 1985, she and other women went to the Hillsborough County Jail to become "Chat Ladies," to visit, talk and offer support to female inmates.

She soon learned many of the women were repeat offenders for drugs and prostitution.

"They said they had no place to go after being released," Palmer recalled recently. "Driving home I thought about it and decided we needed a place."

With guidance from the sheriff’s office, she secured the house and started serving three women at a time for six months of rehabilitation. That house’s mortgage was paid in full this January and in recent years House of Hope added a graduates’ home across from it for those who have completed the six-month recovery program and are transitioning.

The program has a 62 percent success rate and has had 165 women complete it in the past 16 years, Walker said.

Annette Bower, 66, is one of the 165 — having completed the program in 2006. She is now back at the house as the resident house manager.

"The women need the love and support; and it helps me stay strong, stay focused," said Bower who said she had fought a crack cocaine addiction for 25 years when she went through the program.

• • •

The story of the founding will be told in a musical fashion show fundraiser brunch: "Life Goes Round and Round" on March 10. The event, open to the public, will be at The Portico in downtown Tampa and will include special guests: former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor; WTVT-Ch. 13 morning co-anchor Laura Moody; Lauren Dungy, wife of Coach Tony Dungy; and retired NFL player Jeff Herrod.

Palmer will narrate the story, where retired Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department Col. David Parrish will portray the sheriff. Sue Anderson of Bayshore Baptist Church will portray Palmer.

Residents and graduates of the program will model the clothes and share their stories.

Christianson, who hopes to return to college and go to work in addiction treatment, will be among those.

"I will tell about experiencing faith and hope," she said.

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