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April Bachrodt

Love heals by LARA JO HIGHTOWER NWA Democrat-Gazette | May 19, 2019 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated May 19, 2019 at 9:30 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Bachrodt says that community members can help with Magdalene's efforts by "just increasing your understanding of this population, their experiences and how challenging it is to get out of prison or to get out of treatment and change your life. There are such limited resources. These women have barriers that we cannot even begin to imagine."

April Bachrodt, executive director of the Magdalene Serenity House in Fayetteville, remembers the exact moment she decided to increase her involvement with the nonprofit by moving from board member to staff member. She was standing upstairs in a house that was undergoing renovations to become a warm, homey hub for the eight women who would be part of the program's first cohort.

"It was January or February of 2017, and it was just the beams in here," Bachrodt remembers. "So the whole thing was stripped down. We had moved everything around, and we were getting ready to put the drywall up. And I walked up into one of the bedrooms, and I just got overwhelmed. I don't know it was, but it was just this feeling of 'I need to quit my job and do this' -- which is nuts."

At the time, Bachrodt was in a tenure track position at the University of Arkansas in the School of Social Work -- a job she loved -- and had just had a baby girl.

"I had always thought about it, like, 'Oh, you know, what would it be like?'" she says. "Or, 'This could be really neat.' But I'd worked really hard to secure this position and have a stable income." For Bachrodt, who comes from a blue collar background, was the first in her family to attend college and had spent more than a decade laboring to pay for her BA, MA and Ph.D programs, that financial security was a true victory. "I was really making it. 'Am I really going to take a risk and dive in to this opportunity?' But I couldn't shake that feeling I got in that bedroom."

So Bachrodt took the leap. Today, she has no doubt it was the right thing to do.

"It was worth the risk," she says emphatically. "It was worth the pay cut to be able to know that I get to come to work and do this every day. Even on the hardest days here, [I always feel like], 'This is what you were supposed to be doing.'"

What is the organization that inspired this enormous professional gamble? First and foremost, it's a recovery program with a success rate that exceeds most traditional programs. According to the 2018 Impact statement published by Thistle Farms, the original Magdalene program in Nashville, "follow-up reports on women up to 12 to 24 months after graduation found that 88.5% are still sober, employed and successfully living on their own." Created by an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens over two decades ago, the program works in a close and intensive way -- the house has only eight residents at any given time -- to help women escape their painful and sometimes dangerous pasts, get back on their feet and and make positive contributions to their communities.

According to its website, Magdalene Serenity House "provides safe housing and support for two years at no cost to our residents. During their stay, residents receive comprehensive, holistic services to meet mental and physical health needs including counseling, medical and dental care, assistance with application for benefits, job and education readiness and life skills training. Our program works in partnership with community resources to deliver evidence-based interventions aimed toward healing and empowerment." The philosophy of the mission was something that had driven Bachrodt's academic career for nearly a decade, from her undergraduate internship at a rape crisis center to her doctoral dissertation that focused on women exiting the sex trade.

"We felt that it was a perfect match," remembers the Rev. Lowell Grisham, who along with his St. Paul's Episcopal Church colleague, the Rev. Suzanne Stoner, helped open Magdalene Serenity House. "She knows more than nearly anyone in the country about what it takes to get out of these oppressive systems of trauma and abuse. So she was part of the group that helped imagine what this would be and what we needed to do to get it set up right the first time."

Grisham explains that he and Stoner were moved to start the program after a young woman they had worked with through their prison ministry died of a drug overdose shortly after being released from jail.

"We buried her, and we got to meet her lovely family, and it just hurt so much," remembers Grisham. "Suzanne Stoner turned to me with desperate eyes and said, 'We have got to do something.' And then Suzanne came across this program."

Personal history

Bachrodt also has very personal reasons propelling her advocacy: Her mother suffered from substance abuse issues. Her parents split up when she was 2, and she was raised by her grandmother until she was 7, when she moved to Iowa to live with her father and stepmother. Visits with her mom were irregular after she moved in with her grandmother, says Bachrodt.

"Certainly off and on. I definitely was one of those kids who would wait for their mom and she would never show up. 'Mom's coming over, she's going to come and see you,' and she wouldn't. Or 'Mom's coming over,' and she would come over high. It was the 1990s, and heroin was kind of rearing its ugly head. My mom put me in a lot of unsafe situations when I would spend time with her due to her drug use. Not waking up to feed me [or] take care of me, hanging out with a rougher crowd of people that you shouldn't have your children around. Sometimes, she would show up at my grandma's behaving pretty erratically, with my grandma having to say, 'No, you can't.' It was definitely difficult. But I still loved her, through all of it. You know, you still love your mom."

One thing that would always stay with Bachrodt from this time was the lesson in empathy and compassion demonstrated by her grandmother toward her mother.

"My grandma just really wanted to help her," says Bachrodt. "My mom was actually adopted at birth, so for my grandma, this was a baby that she really wanted. She wanted to be there for her. I think that's why she took me; she said, "I'm going to take April, I'm going to keep her safe. I'm going to love her and try and help you at the same time.'"

"[Bachrodt] is very personable, she's easy to talk to, she isn't judgmental," says Sophia, one of the first Magdalene Serenity House residents and the first who will graduate from the program this summer. "I can tell her exactly what is going on with me and what I had been through, and, as we went through the process, she had a great understanding of where I had been."

Bachrodt's academic background has a lot to do with that level of understanding and empathy. While she was studying the field of social work, Bachrodt was also working in it, starting with her volunteer work with the Boys and Girls Club her sophomore year of college.

"I coached volleyball, basketball," she says. "I love mentoring young girls. I was always interested in female empowerment and how to build girls up to be strong and know their worth and know that they can do anything they set their mind to."

Her internship at a rape crisis center helped hone the empathy and compassion modeled by her grandmother all those years before.

"That's where I started working with people who had experienced sexual violence, sexual abuse," she says. "I was going out into the schools and into the community doing education and outreach. I loved it. I loved teaching people, changing people's minds about different issues and really talking about the difficult topic of sexual assault. I also started working with juvenile sex offenders. I've always believed that people deserve second chances, third, fourth chances -- even the people that society thinks that we can just throw away. I feel like, 'No. We can do this. We can help. Everyone has worth.' And so that really kind of got me focusing on women's issues and those more challenging populations."

How is this happening?

A semester studying abroad in India would open Bachrodt's eyes to the issue of sex trafficking. Once back in the States, she decided that more research needed to be focused on the issue and set out to do just that with her dissertation, which centered on women trying to exit the sex trades.

"I interviewed women who were trying to get out or were in diversion," she says. "And then I also interviewed providers. And really, what it came down to was that there are no programs or services for these women. So you have women who want to get out, who want to change their life, who want to stop using drugs, who want to stop selling their bodies, who have extensive trauma histories, who have been arrested 40 times -- who can't get out. And I was, like, 'What on earth? How is this happening and what are we doing to change it?'"

Armed with a passion to educate in order to enlist others to help make these changes in services offered, Bachrodt accepted a teaching position at the University of Arkansas. When she first heard of the plans to open Magdalene Serenity House in Fayetteville, she was astonished; it was exactly the sort of resource she had been advocating for.

"I thought, 'Man, that's wild!'" she says. "Here's this community in little Fayetteville ... who has seen a gap in services, who has seen women come out of the correctional facilities with nowhere to go -- at least nowhere safe to go -- and wants to do something about it. I thought, 'How lucky am I?'"

Over the nearly two years the house has been open, Bachrodt says the biggest lesson she and her team have learned is that, in order for the program to be effective, it must be flexible and tailored to each resident's individual needs.

"There is not one way of doing things," she says. "There's not one form of treatment or program that's going to work for everyone. And what I love about what we've been able to do here at Magdalene is that we've been able to take this individual focus -- 'What does this resident need?' -- and that might actually look a little different than what this other resident needs."

"April understands the issues that many of our residents face as they rebuilt their lives," says Kay Gallagher, assistant program director at Magdalene Serenity House. "She knows that there is no one-size-fits all approach, and while she recognizes the need for structure, she is not rigid in the methodology. She does not follow a blue print but rather meets each resident where they are. April lets the residents identify their needs and their goals rather than telling them what they must do."

Nowhere is this kind of thoughtful flexibility more evident than in what Bachrodt and her team have done in order to make it possible for residents who have children to host their families for overnight or weekend visits. When Bachrodt learned from family court that overnight visits at Magdalene House would be helpful for reunification, she says her response was, "Hey, I can make this work." Bachrodt re-configured the communal meeting room downstairs to equip it with sleeper sofas and a closet stocked with toys and games.

"I've seen families rebuild," says Bachrodt. "Looking at my past history and my story and not getting that opportunity with my own mother, not having that and being able to see the women here become mothers again -- I love that part of it. We have a resident who has twins. That was actually part of the reunification process, that we would do three months of supervised visitation as a staff. One of us drives eight hours to Oklahoma and back to get the kids. And [the resident] did so well that now she has unsupervised overnight visits. And so, when she gets to graduate next February, the goal will be to have her children back, and we've done it the right way."

"It's incredible," says Sophia of the family suite. "Taking on this two-year commitment, away from my son -- I still wanted to be with him -- and with him being able to come over any weekend he's available and spend the weekend with me at the house ... we're so blessed with that. I'm grateful that Magdalene House has been really great about personalizing our programs. They understand what works for one resident might not work for another one, and they've made allowances or given us what we need extra in order to help us through it."

More wins than losses

Despite Magdalene's willingness to customize, the program can't be right for everyone. Bachrodt says that adjusting to that has been the toughest part of the process.

"I think when I came into this, I thought, 'Man, if we just love them enough and get everything they could ever need, they're going to make it.' And that's not true. I put a lot into this program. I want these women to be successful, and, at the end of the day, they have to want it too. I can't will it to happen. I can't want it more than them. I can be here on the journey and support them, but they have to want to get better. They have to want to stay clean. They have to want to reunify with their children. I can't want that for them. And that was hard for me. The ones we've lost, I didn't want to let them go. I'm like, 'No, don't. Why? Why are you doing this? You know, you have every opportunity here. Just tell me what you need.' And it's not just time. It's just that they're not done yet."

But so far at Magdalene Serenity House, there are more residents who are ready to make positive changes than not. Sophia's journey is a perfect example. Now 30 years old, she says she started drinking and using drugs at a young age. When she was 21, she was sent to prison on felony drug charges.

"Since then, I've gone back three times for parole violations," she says, matter-of-factly. She says she's willing to talk about the challenges she's faced in the hope that it will inspire others to make a change. "I would get out, I would relapse, and I wouldn't report to my parole officer. So I would go back in. This last time, I knew I had to do something different. But I didn't know what I needed. I didn't know how to put my life back on track."

A big part of the problem, says Sophia, is that, though she was told what she needed to do to avoid violating her parole, no one helped her figure out how to do it.

"I didn't know how to resist the alcohol," she says. "I didn't know how to get up and go to work and come home and spend time with family. Other than my family, everyone I knew was an active user."

The structured world of Magdalene Serenity House, the encouragement to continue her participation in a 12-step program and the job and education assistance was just what she needed, Sophia says.

"The first 90 days, you don't go anywhere without staff or volunteers. That was a big deal. You're never alone. A big part of going back to those old people [who were users] was feeling lonely, and I didn't have anyone to talk to. I didn't have anyone that understood."

Sophia credits the house as a whole for her successes over the past two years, but she saves special praise for Bachrodt, whom she calls "one of my favorites."

"April was a huge part of me being willing to participate and go through the steps," she says. "I relied on her very heavily in the beginning. I get out, and I'm experiencing feelings and situations that I had never learned to deal with in the past. I could go to her with those things, and she might give me suggestions. Ultimately, she let me make my own choices, but she provided me with the tools to make good choices. I would follow up with her and whether it ended up with a positive or negative outcome, she never chastised me for making bad choices. She continued to support me completely in learning a better way to live."

Today, Sophia has a full-time job, is securing an apartment where she will live with her son and is enrolling at Northwest Arkansas Community College. She plans on volunteering with Magdalene Serenity House after graduation.

"I've seen incredible transformation in this program," says Bachrodt. "It takes my breath away when I sit and really think about the women when I met them at that door, or I picked them up from the prison, or I picked them up from the prison bus or went and grabbed them from treatment. [Seeing] who they were in that moment -- anxious, scared, unsure of what their futures were going to look like -- [and then seeing them transform] into these strong confident women who are kicking a** in recovery.

"It's amazing to watch."

How to Help Magdalene Serenity House

April Bachrodt and the Rev. Lowell Grisham both marvel at the support Magdalene Serenity House has received from the Northwest Arkansas community.

“[Magdalene House founder] Becca Stevens said that she was just wowed, by not only the speed [of the project] but the quality of the house and the program’s initial start-up,” says Grisham. “She gets to see all of [the Magdalene Houses] and she said that our house is a model for everybody.”

“This community is so giving and committed to improving the lives of people in our community,” says Bachrodt. “I’ve never witnessed anything like that — people are willing to pull together and say, ‘Not another woman is going to get out of prison and die because she had nowhere to go.’”

The house is up and running, but the fund raising doesn’t stop — operational costs never go away, and Bachrodt says the need for a resource like this means that expanding is, she hopes, in the future.

“We have eight beds, and I get letters and phone calls and referrals every day for women looking to change their lives and wanting to commit to two years, recognizing that they have to do it differently this time,” says Bachrodt.

“Our biggest need is enough people giving modest gifts on a regular basis to be sustainable,” notes Grisham. “Those little gifts of $1 a day — or even $100 a month. Our hope is to widen the base of support to such a place where, every month, we know we have as much money coming in as we’re spending, and we aren’t far from that.”

There are other ways to help, says Bachrodt.

“We love donation drives, toilet paper and laundry detergent — two things that are easy to pick up, and that we always need,” she says. “And people who are employers and are willing to work with us and willing to train the women, and are willing to give a second, third, or fourth chance. And just in terms of community resources, therapists or lawyers — we’re always in need of people willing to take a pro bono case or do specialized therapy at a discounted rate and really give back to our women.”

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NAN Profiles on 05/19/2019

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