At the corner of Ninth and College streets stands a two-story, Victorian style house surrounded by trees in bloom with the new spring. An inviting front porch wraps around the structure and the backyard is occupied by a chicken coop and raised garden beds, while a blonde gray cat named Sarafina watches from the window with steely eyes, her tail flicking in the scattered sunlight.
The house stands with the historic Hanger Hill neighborhood at its back and rows of warehouses ahead, right on the perimeter of the shiny new East Village district just down the road. There’s a busy bus stop at the edge of the yard, but for now, the house is quiet.
Later tonight, the house will come to life as its inhabitants — the eight women currently enrolled in the Hope Rises incarceration re-entry program — return to the place they’ll call home for six months.
Hope Rises is a nonprofit developed to aid incarcerated and recently released women in central Arkansas by providing opportunities to gain personal empowerment. The organization was born out of an assessment of community needs performed by Kim Roxburgh and Christine Schilp-Mills, future co-founders of Hope Rises.
The two first joined forces in South Africa while Roxburgh was working on her master’s in public health and bachelor’s in social work. They worked with women in a small community ravaged by HIV, and Roxburgh expected to spend the rest of her career in this field — that is, until she couldn’t stop thinking about the women in her home state of Arkansas.
“Women’s issues, whether it’s HIV or incarceration, they’re all stemming from the same thing,” executive director Roxburgh says. “It’s all from multiple traumas, violence and low self-esteem.”
They returned to Little Rock to set up shop, assuming, Roxburgh admits, they would implement some sort of women’s empowerment project in a low-income area as they had half a world away.
But then the needs assessment did what it was supposed to do. After evaluating all the negative health and social outcomes, one group rose to the top: Women coming out of prison were the most marginalized with the least amount of resources in the area.
“Hope Rises allows the women in our prison system who are ready to heal and grow and rejoin our community do so in a life-changing way.”
So the small nonprofit dove headfirst into a world they knew little about, doing research and teaching empowerment courses in jails for a year and a half to learn about the system and the women in it.
“We send people to prison and we don’t give them anything new to help prevent what put them there. They’re coming out with more barriers than they went in with,” Roxburgh says. “It wasn’t enough to be an addict who is separated from your kids, dealing with mental health issues that have never been addressed. Now you’re a felon, so it’s harder to get a job or housing, and we’ve made things more complicated for you. There’s no rehabilitation for that.”
Dedicated to taking a different approach than similar organizations, Hope Rises developed a re-entry approach called the Justice Involved Women’s Empowerment Model. The evidence-driven program is based off of research conducted by the National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Department of Justice. The research — which is readily available, but seldom implemented because of certification fees and requirements — found that in order to decrease re-incarceration in female inmates, they require gender-responsive programs designed around specific needs.
“The reasons women go back to prison are different than men,” Roxburgh says, noting that while men often find steady pay and careers in fields like construction, securing more than a fast-food job is difficult for previously incarcerated women, which can add to depression.
“Women are also more likely than their male counterparts in prison to have experienced multiple traumas in their past,” she says, making recidivism (defined in Arkansas as rearrest) more of a danger. “For example, a lot of women will relapse over not getting to see their kids, increasing their risk for going back to prison, but that doesn’t increase a man’s risk.”
The Hope Rises model works through seven branches: recovery, community engagement, personal and economic empowerment, case management and physical and mental wellness. This model applies across the nonprofit’s pre-release, re-entry and step-down programs. For the six months they’re in the house, residents follow strict guidelines on chores, clean eating, therapy, attending recovery meetings and regular exercise, with Hope Rises advocates often donating their time to teach yoga classes or financial literacy courses.
“This holistic approach of not just looking at someone as an addict is at the core of everything we do,” Roxburgh says. “For most systems, the rules coming out of prison are to get a job, to go to meetings and that’s kind of it. That and a roof over your head is supposed to cure everything. For us, just saying to these women ‘You’re a whole woman, you’re a whole person and you’re a mother and a daughter and a survivor of all this trauma’ is how we built our foundation.”
And the program works. It was because of Hope Rises’ spotless track record of recidivism that someone suggested Roxburgh apply to be the 2018 partner of Party with a Heart. Each year, this local nonprofit teams up with another nonprofit, organizing unique fundraising events to benefit the chosen organization.
Tifany Hamlin co-founded Party with a Heart three years ago after she and some friends had attended one too many ho-hum fundraisers. With a saturated nonprofit arena like Little Rock’s, it’s all too easy for less prominent charities to slip through the cracks, especially when they don’t have the means or manpower to host glitzy events.
“I began to realize that the playing field for nonprofit organizations didn’t seem exactly fair,” Hamlin says. “So many small organizations that also do amazing work cannot pull off a formal gala or state convention-sized event.”
As a female-focused nonprofit, Party with a Heart believes bringing women together for a common cause can ignite that cause, giving it momentum, as was evident with past partners Literacy Action of Central Arkansas and Partners Against Trafficking Humans.
The group finds the “magic mix” for a chosen partner is that it must support an issue women are unaware of, one they will become passionate about and one with the stability to handle the spotlight for an entire year. Hamlin says Hope Rises fits the bill perfectly with an active and engaged board and a success record that speaks for itself.
Over the course of the year, Party with a Heart will host three events whose net proceeds will go to Hope Rises: an Italian wine dinner that took place in February, a ladies-only dance party and a singalong viewing of “Grease.”
But while these events are designed to attracts crowds, they always serve their intended purpose of educating women on local injustices, biases and the struggles of their neighbors — something to which Hamlin is not immune.
“Every year I am brought face-to-face with an important social issue that reveals another level of personal bias I didn’t know I was harboring,” Hamlin says. “The incredible people our nonprofit partners serve don’t usually fit my early definitions of a victim of sex trafficking or an adult who cannot read or a woman who is transitioning out of the prison system. I am so grateful for the knowledge, expansion and compassion that each year brings me.
“I know this sounds cliché, but Party with a Heart gives me more than I ever could give back,” she adds. “Isn’t that the lesson in giving?”
With one Party with a Heart event under its belt, Roxburgh says Hope Rises is already seeing a boost in website traffic, social media interactions and general public interest. The goal is to convert these curious new fans into contributors, because the organization has a full to-do list.
A major goal for the nonprofit is to add more residents and more office space for the team. Perhaps more importantly, the group is currently working on grants to expand its in-prison presence and services to prepare women before release.
With more than 650 women released from incarceration in Arkansas each year and only 18 licensed transitional houses in the state, it’s daunting to consider the waitlist of women to even get into Hope Rises.
“People seem to think this is normal or this is how it’s always been, but between 2006 and 2016, the rate of women in incarceration increased 70 percent,” Roxburgh says. “We’re not in a normal cycle here. We have an epidemic and we are incarcerating people like crazy. We can’t sustain this. We have to do something different.”
Recidivism numbers in Arkansas are some of the worst in the country, with approximately one-third of women being re-incarcerated within three years of release, according to the nonprofit’s website. Of the eight women currently in the Hope Rises house, all of them have done multiple stints in prison, some serving as many as six terms.
For Roxburgh, this work harkens back to her time in South Africa, but with a startling dissonance.
“When you look at how we do things overseas, it’s so weird domestically,” she says. “In America, we address things as single issues, but we aren’t concerned with your family dynamics or your poverty. Overseas, we know in order to reach people in those situations that we have to provide transportation and housing. Why would we ever expect someone to show up to our class on empowerment when they don’t have the means to get there, or to get their medication, for that matter, or they’re hungry?
“Yet here, with our own neighbors, we have this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality where we can help you on this one thing, but you have to figure out the rest on your own.”
Hamlin, like most, was shocked when she learned about this largely unknown issue in Arkansas. But she, like most, was quickly on board to discuss the issue and promote this organization that’s trying to dismantle it.
“What I’m learning through Hope Rises is that our prison system was created mostly for men and by men. Women have entirely different needs both while in prison and when transitioning out of the system,” Hamlin says. “It’s almost impossible to successfully leave the cycle of prison without some type of healthy intervention and support. Hope Rises is that healthy intervention, allowing the women in our prison system who are ready to heal and grow and rejoin our community do so in a life-changing way.”
And while the end goal may be to transform an entire societal system, Roxburgh and her team know those life-changing moments only happen when a human being invests in another human being with intentionality.
It’s delicate work, the empowerment process. It’s one where reliance shifts slowly, piece by piece, from rulemaker to caregiver to, finally, self.
“At first, they’re very dependent on us,” Roxburgh says. “And sure, that feels good because we feel needed, but we always have to step back, to make sure we’ve taught them how to feel wholly confident in themselves.
“When they walk out of here, I don’t want them to say, ‘This is what Hope Rises did for me.’ I want them to say, ‘Look at what I did.’”
Girls’ Night Out Dance Party
May 19, 8 p.m.
Argenta Community Theater
Sept. 15, 6 p.m.
Argenta Community Theater
Tickets + Info: PartyWithAHeart.org