CLEARWATER — For five years, Kathleen Turley was addicted to crack cocaine. Her path to recovery and redemption began when she was arrested for possession and sentenced to 13 months at Hernando Correctional Institution. It was there that she found God, her "spiritual mom" and her mission.
As an inmate, she learned about First Touch Mission and Hope House, rehabilitation programs operated by Safety Harbor resident Barbara Stepanik and housed on the grounds of Clearwater's Calvary Baptist Church. The programs start working with women while they are still in prison, give them a home at Hope House and then help them transition back into society.
"The Hope House is a great example of people putting their faith in action to meet a very real need in our community," said Calvary Pastor William Rice. "The fact is that people transitioning out of prison need help or the likelihood of returning increases. We hope this effort is just the beginning and that we will be able to do much more in the future."
While still in prison, female inmates are matched up with several mentors who write them letters, visit them, pray for them and support them in any way they can. When Turley walked out through the gates of Hernando Correctional and back into the world, her mentors were there to pick her up.
"They have become some of my very best friends. They have been there through everything," she said. "The Lord led me here to Clearwater and to First Touch Mission and Calvary Baptist Church."
Six months before Turley was scheduled to be released, she was visited by Stepanik, a retired psychiatric nurse, and her co-director at the time, Hazmin Flynt.
"She showed me a picture of the Hope House and I got Holy Ghost goose bumps from head to toe and I knew this was where God wanted me to be," said Turley, 47, who is originally from Jacksonville.
Six women have graduated from Stepanik's program since she started it three years ago, and three more are living in Hope House now. She serves women from prisons in Hillsborough and Hernando counties. Inmates learn about the program while still incarcerated, and if they want a "Christ-based transition program," they write to her.
"We don't go looking," Stepanik said. "We feel very strongly that God has a big hand in this."
At Hope House, the residents pay for utilities, but the money they save by not having to pay rent is put into an interest-bearing account for a future security deposit or down payment on a home. Their medical, dental and eye care are provided. Hope House also offers residents an intensive rehabilitation program that includes community service and a Christian-based 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery, which helps them overcome bad habits as well as alcohol and drug addiction.
The residents serve as volunteers with Tampa Bay Cares to help elderly people clean their houses, and with Calvary Baptist's Eisenhower Elementary School partnership, which helps provide food, supplies and money to the school. The women sing in the Calvary church choir, attend Bible study and serve as greeters at services.
Last September, Turley got an eye exam at the office of January Moennig, a church ministry partner, and mentioned to the doctor that she was looking for work. Moennig hired her as an optometric assistant.
"She took a chance on me and I love it," Turley said.
Now Turley also serves as a team member and mentor to women being released from prison and living at Hope House.
"It's been absolutely amazing to watch God pour out his blessings," she said.
The women she met in prison helped Stepanik, 70, find her next calling after she retired from nursing.
Stepanik had partnered with Flynt to start a prison ministry called Passion Flower Productions, going into prisons to do faith-based teaching and singing.
They would take prayer requests from the inmates, and were struck that 95 percent of the time, the inmates requested prayers about their children or about the risks they would face when they were released from prison.
"God changed our path," Stepanik said. "So we switched our gears and said we need to go do something about this."
She contacted Calvary Baptist, which let her use a house on the church's campus for First Touch Mission and Hope House. The programs are funded by donations and fundraising events.
Danielle Prince, 23, was Hope House's first resident. She was in prison for burglary and grand theft, with six months left in her sentence, when "it finally hit me, there's got to be a different way." She learned about Hope House from her classification officer, wrote a letter, and Stepanik and the mentors stepped in to help.
But after a few months, Prince left the program because "I wasn't ready yet." She later had a child and came back, along with her original mentor team, to go through the program again.
Now she and her 9-month-old baby, Gabriel, live in Stepanik's Safety Harbor home. Prince is a licensed nail tech at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa. She and Stepanik have been looking at apartments for her.
"Even after I left the program, she took me back with open arms," Prince said. "She's like a mom to me."
For Turley, the relationship with Stepanik is special, too.
"Barb is my spiritual mom," Turley said. "She has helped me to grow spiritually, emotionally, just in every aspect in my life she has helped me to grow. Same way with Calvary, they embraced me. It's been wonderful."