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A Positive Probation, part 2: Women learn life skills bolstered by affirmations

  • Clockwise from front, Brandylee Funk, Ashley Funk, Kelly Starzyk and prosecutor Sarah Pascale practice yoga during a meeting of the Womanhood Program, Oct. 3, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Starzyk, left, and Ashley Funk work on their journals during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Angela Loader works on her journal during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hilda Alicea picks out clippings for her journal during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gina Sanderson, right, helps probationers Angela Loader, left, and Lauren Conkey get started during a quilting class that was part of her Womanhood Program, Nov. 7, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly O'Brien, left, talks with Kelly Starzyk, second from left, as Ashley Funk, third from left, and Hilda Alicea share a moment during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hilda Alicea works on her journal during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hilda Alicea picks out clippings for her journal during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey works on a section of quilt during an installment of the Womanhood Program, Nov. 7, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brandylee Funk, left, and Kelly O'Brien work on sections of quilt during an installment of the Womanhood Program, Nov. 7, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly O'Brien, from left, Kelly Starzyk and Lauren Conkey work on sections of quilt during an installment of the Womanhood Program, Nov. 7, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk works on her journal during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey, left, and her mother, Toni, talk at their home in Belchertown, Nov. 2. Lauren is holding their dog, Gracie. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Regina Sanderson, left, speaks during an installment of her Womanhood Program, Nov. 11, at Belchertown Town Hall. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Starzyk, right, whispers to Kelly O'Brien during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. Snacks, like the doughnut she is holding, were part of the weekly meetings. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Starzyk, left, and Lauren Conkey work on sections of quilt during an installment of the Womanhood Program, Nov. 7, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey, left, and her mother, Toni, talk at their home in Belchertown, Nov. 2. Toni is holding their dog, Gracie. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly O'Brien works on her journal during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gina Sanderson, left, who is a probation officer in Eastern Hampshire District Court, talks with probationers Kelly O'Brien, center, and Kelly Starzyk during an art class, Oct. 24, that was part of an 11-week probation program for women she created called the Womanhood Program, at Belchertown Town Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@ecutts_HG
Monday, November 27, 2017

Second of three parts

“I am determined to seek out opportunities for myself to provide a better life for myself.​​​​”

The sentence echoed throughout the auditorium at the Belchertown Town Hall repeatedly for 10 weeks. Said in imperfect unison by about a dozen women, the sentence was one of the five principles that began nearly every session of the Womanhood Program, a course run by the Eastern Hampshire District Court probation office.

“Sometimes if you hear things or say things out loud over and over again, you begin to believe them,” said Regina Sanderson, a probation officer and the program’s founder. “My thought is that by reciting that and reciting that as a group, I am hoping to connect the women and at some point they’ll believe one, a few, or all of the principles.”

The principles include providing basic needs for oneself, including food, clothing and shelter, as well as having a right to live a life free of violence, drugs and alcohol.

Kelly O’Brien described the words as seeds planted in her consciousness.

“It starts clicking in your head,” she said. “They’re positive things to say to yourself every day or every Tuesday, where you don’t usually think that way or think those things daily.”

Kelly, Lauren Conkey and Ashley Funk were three of about 12 women who participated in the Womanhood Program this fall. The program, which began in 2015, is generally offered to women who have been charged with crimes and placed on probation. It aims to reduce recidivism by giving women the skills and confidence they need to chart a better path.

The five principles echo the topics the women cover in class each week.

On Halloween, the women learned about resumes and job searches from instructor Loretta Dansereau. Some of the women, as well as Sanderson and Dansereau, came dressed in costume. Wearing a blond wig, Sanderson dressed as Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz.” In sweatpants and a sweatshirt, Dansereau provided an example of what not to wear to a job interview.

Sitting around the tables, the women described how searching for a job makes them feel.

“Stressful,” one woman said.

“Discouraging,” said another.

Lauren felt that way, too. As a convicted felon, she had a hard time finding a job. “I was very upfront with them about having a criminal background and everything and they said they would work with me and when it came down to it, they would say ‘never mind,’” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Lauren was able to get a job where her background wasn’t an issue and the hours fit around caring for her 7-month-old daughter, Stella.

A job was what gave Ashley difficulties her first time in the program. Working in property management, she said her schedule would sometimes send her as far away as Fitchburg, meaning she could not consistently make it back in time for class. This time, Ashley’s job chopping wood gave her the stability to make it to class on a regular basis.

Program’s incentives

Both women, along with seven others, were aiming to complete the program in mid-November. One of the incentives for finishing is that most of the women receive time off their probation sentence.

Looking back on how her life has changed in the last year, Lauren is upbeat.

“It’s so great. I mean, I compare myself to other people my age sometimes and their lives are totally different. They’ve graduated college and gotten great jobs. Yeah, a lot of my shit was self-inflicted but they didn’t go through that,” Lauren said.

“Compared to where I was a year ago, when I wasn’t able to hold a stable job or had no real plan as to what I was going to do, being able to just, like, have my daughter and not have to worry about getting arrested or what is going to happen next is so nice.”

“I am responsible for my safety.”

That principle about safety took on a deeper meaning as the women prepared for their class in personal safety and self-defense. The third class of the program, it gave the women an opportunity to get to know one another better as they were split into pairs.

“True self-protection is a state of mind, not a physical act,” instructor Randy Haskins repeated throughout the class. “If you reach the point it is physical, you’ve already failed. Make violence miss you. That’s true self-defense.”

In addition to teaching self-defense moves, Haskins also talked to the women about what he described as the five habitual acts of violence that people commit. A month later, the women would discuss domestic violence with a representative from the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

After Haskins spoke to the women about the theory of protecting themselves, they got some hands-on practice. Using Lauren as a partner to demonstrate, Haskins showed the women a wrist maneuver to use if someone grabbed their arm. Following a few demonstrations, the women got to work practicing the moves, which appeared simple but, if done correctly, caused an immense amount of pain.

“I want you sincerely to be safe and successful in life,” Haskins told the women at the end of the session.

“I am determined to improve myself and become a better person every day.”

With just a few sessions left before graduation, the women spent the two hours of class learning about art therapy. Like all of the other instructors and Sanderson, Michelle Cotugno volunteers her time for the program. Cotugno has also been involved since the program’s inception.

With colored pencils and markers spread out on tables and magazines, scissors and glue sticks at the ready, some of the women started to work immediately while others took the time to speak with Sanderson about their week.

“There are things that can be said with no words,” Cotugno told the women.

Toward the end of the class, Cotugno spoke to the women again about their reactions to the session. One said she would continue the practice while another said she found it easier to put her feelings into art than saying them out loud.

 Tuesday: Graduation day.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@ gazettenet.com.