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WOMEN ADRIFT FIND NEW COURSE

Christina came to Brooksville from Oklahoma 19 months ago with a boyfriend she barely knew.

For a while, they lived in a tent in the woods. Then he went to jail. She was left stranded, a stranger far from home.

Christina, 40, began dabbling in alcohol and drugs when she was 14. She lost custody of her five children when she got hooked on methamphetamine.

In desperation, she turned to churches in Brooksville for help. She discovered there was a men's shelter in Hernando County, but nothing for women.

Eventually, her quest for food led her to Love Your Neighbor, a local Christian charity. That's where she picked up a pamphlet touting Mary's House, a shelter for women down on their luck. But the place had not opened yet, so for months she carried around the pamphlet in her pocket.

Now Christina can finally pass along the pamphlet to someone else. On Wednesday, she was one of the first two women to move into Mary's House, Hernando's long-awaited shelter for women who are seeking a fresh start after prison, drug or alcohol addiction, or even a bitter divorce.

This could be Christina's last chance to get her life in order, to be reunited with her children. Her oldest son is grown and has kids of his own.

"I want to see them grandbabies," Christina said as she sat outside the shelter a day after she moved in.

Like other nonurban communities, Hernando County has long struggled to find a way to feed, clothe and shelter its largely hidden homeless population. People live in the woods, abandoned buildings and cars.

Jericho Road Ministries was founded a decade ago to help respond to that need. Led by its director, the Rev. Bruce Gimbel, the nonprofit organization has operated a men's shelter for seven years. But it took a while longer to find a place to house women, who previously were shunted to motels.

Last year, Gimbel found a rundown two-story house on 31/2 acres along Howell Avenue, on the north side of Brooksville, and purchased it with donations that Jericho Road had received. It was an answer to prayers. Volunteers renovated, cleaned up and redecorated the house for use as a six-bed women's shelter.

It's a modest start.

Women accepted into Mary's House make an 11-month commitment. The tightly structured program employs a mixture of faith and firmness to help women physically, spiritually and financially, said shelter director Ann Topping.

Shelter occupants will learn anger management, money management, healthy living skills, and how to find and keep a job. Toward the end of their stay, the women will be expected to work and save money so they can live independently.

"We're trying to turn these women from survivors into thrivers," Topping said.

Christina, her family and others would appreciate that.

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For information about Mary's House, call (352) 799-2912, ext. 4.

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