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A Positive Probation, part 3: Graduation gives women time to shine despite struggles

  • Probationers Ashley Funk, left, and her sister, Brandylee Funk, who both attended the Womanhood Program, wait for their graduation ceremony to begin, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Beside them is Gary Riviere, who is the uncle of Ashley's boyfriend. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Womanhood Program graduates Kelly O'Brien, left, and Kelly Starczyk smile after Starczyk's graduation speech, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey, left, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, shakes hands with State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose after receiving her certificate of achievement, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Also providing congratulations are, from left, Womanhood Program founder Gina Sanderson, Judge John Payne, Jr., Director of the Springfield Office of the Governor Michael Knapik and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk, left, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, shakes hands with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan after receiving her certificate of achievement from Womanhood Program founder Gina Sanderson, second from left, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Also providing congratulations are, from left, Judge John Payne Jr. and Michael Knapik, director of the Springfield office of Gov. Charlie Baker. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Angela Loader, left, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, shakes hands with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan after receiving her certificate of achievement from Womanhood Program founder Gina Sanderson, second from left, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Also providing congratulations are, from left, Judge John Payne, Jr. and Director of the Springfield Office of the Governor Michael Knapik. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brandylee Funk, left, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, shakes hands with the Director of the Springfield Office of the Governor Michael Knapik after receiving her certificate of achievement from Gina Sanderson, second from left, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly O'Brien, left, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, shakes hands with the director of the Springfield Office of the Governor Michael Knapik after receiving her certificate of achievement from Gina Sanderson, second from left, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Starczyk, left, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, shakes hands with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan after receiving her certificate of achievement from Womanhood Program founder Gina Sanderson, second from left, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Also providing congratulations are, from left, Judge John Payne, Jr. and Director of the Springfield Office of the Governor Michael Knapik. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Womanhood Program founder Gina Sanderson, right, hands out gifts to program graduates Brandylee Funk, clockwise from front, Angela Loader, Ashley Funk, Kelly O'Brien and Kelly Starczyk after their graduation ceremony, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk, center, smiles while surrounded by well-wishers after graduating the Womanhood Program, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amy Lamica, right, of Hadley, who is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution Mary Mattoon Chapter in Amherst, distributes a self-help book titled "Rise Sister Rise" by Rebecca Campbell to Womanhood Program graduates after their graduation ceremony, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gina Sanderson, a probation officer who created the Womanhood Program, speaks during a graduation ceremony for members of her program, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Womanhood Program graduate Lauren Conkey feeds her daughter, Stella, 7 months, as her father, Ken, holds her after her graduation ceremony, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, talks to her daughter, Stella, 7 months, while waiting for the graduation ceremony to begin, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk, second from left, hugs her adoptive mother, Sue Booth, while waiting for the Womanhood Program graduation ceremony to begin, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Beside them is Ashley's sister, Brandylee Funk, and the uncle of Ashley's boyfriend, Gary Riviere. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey, who is a graduate of the Womanhood Program, talks to her daughter, Stella, 7 months, while waiting for the graduation ceremony to begin, Nov. 17, at Eastern Hampshire District Court. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Starczyk, right, speaks during a graduation ceremony for the Womanhood Program, Nov. 17, at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Looking on is the founder of the program, Gina Sanderson. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eastern Hampshire District Court Chief Probation Officer Robert Ryan receives a gift from probationers Kelly O'Brien, center, Lauren Conkey and Angela Loader during a segment of their Womanhood Program graduation ceremony where they honored veterans for their service, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. The founder of the program, Gina Sanderson, looks on in the background. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Womanhood Program graduate Brandylee Funk, left, and another graduate who declined to be identified, hold a quilt made by members of the program, Nov. 17, during their graduation ceremony at Eastern Hampshire District Court. They presented the quilt to Raymond Janke, who is the veteran's agent for the Town of Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly O'Brien, right, and other probationers graduating from the Womanhood Program, applaud after a speech by classmate Kelly Starzyk, Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@ecutts_HG
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Third of three parts

The smile on Ashley Funk’s face as she accepted her certificate of achievement was as big as a grin could be.

“I was just like, ‘I did it!’” Ashley said.

Ashley and eight others completed the Womanhood Program — a 10-week course for women charged with a crime, run by the Eastern Hampshire District Court probation office in Belchertown — with all the pomp and circumstance reserved for more traditional graduation ceremonies.

“This is my and the court’s sixth graduation. However, it is your first and this is what it makes it so special today,” Regina Sanderson, probation officer and program founder, said during the Nov. 17 event in the courthouse. “I have enjoyed working with you, learning from you and I’m happy to stand here and congratulate all of you. I wish you the best in your futures.”

The program, started in 2015, seeks to educate women and empower them to break the cycle of their involvement with the criminal justice system. Equally as important, the program aims to help women meet other women and end the isolation many of them may feel as they try to find their way back into the community.

‘A program of optimism’

Forty-five minutes before the ceremony, a few of the soon-to-be graduates began to arrive to the courthouse. Sitting on benches outside the courtroom, the women chatted with each other as they waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Pulling the women aside individually or in pairs, Sanderson did a last-minute run-through of the day’s ceremony.

To prepare, the women practiced poems they would read and gifts they would hand out as they honored military veterans who had been invited. They practiced unfolding and displaying a quilt they made together in the last class of the program.

At 2 p.m., the doors to the courtroom opened and more than 70 people filed in to fill the benches and extra chairs. Family and friends of the graduates claimed a few spots, but most in attendance — program instructors, court clerks, police officers, state legislators as well as representatives from the Northwestern district attorney’s office —had no personal connection with the women.

“All of those people don’t even know any of us, really,” Ashley said. “They appreciated us and they thanked us. It feels good for people you don’t even know to be proud of you.”

Judge John M. Payne Jr. was first justice of the Eastern Hampshire District Court three years ago when Sanderson began the program. Although he no longer sits in the Belchertown court on a daily basis, Payne has made it a point to attend each graduation.

Addressing the women, he reflected on the responsibility of a judge and the discouraging aspects of his position — sentencing people to jail, probation and putting conditions on their lives.

Payne said he always hoped such sanctions would help defendants make changes in their lives for the better. “Today is a great day because we are doing something that is truly positive,” he said.

After the ceremony, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan echoed Payne’s sentiment.

“When you work in the criminal justice system, sometimes there is a lot of sadness and that ceremony is completely joyful,” Sullivan said. “It’s seeing these young women be really recognized for the hard work they have put in and the knowledge that they are going to do better. I really look at it as a program of optimism.”

‘The best day’

Through the program, Kelly Starczyk of Granby said, she returned to who she was before she started using heroin and getting into trouble.

At first hesitant and only thinking about the time off her probation she would receive, Kelly said she quickly began to look forward to Tuesday nights with the Womanhood Program — not just to socialize but to learn.

Now a year and two months sober, Kelly told those gathered for graduation she was thankful the program exists.

“I stayed to myself, I had no friends, I didn’t socialize ... This class helped me bring myself back. It helped me gain my self-confidence,” she said. “Before my arrest, before the drugs, I was social. After being arrested, after admitting that I was a drug addict, I isolated myself, made sure I didn’t have friends. Again, this class changed me — it reminded me who I was before I started using.”

In addition to regaining her self-confidence, Kelly also made a connection that has helped her through tough days during the last three months.

“Thanks to this class, learning what I did, I’m never going back to that life,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s mother, Margaret Starczyk, also noticed a change in her daughter, and the graduation was a special day for her as well.

“This is, oh, it’s the best day I’ve had forever because Kelly is doing fine,” Margaret Starczyk said. “She is back to normal, my daughter. She’s back to my Kelly. She’s had a rough two years. I’ve had a rough two years. She’s back to normal and she’s going to be like she was before.”

‘Pay it forward’

Penny Ethier of Granby, an alumna of the program, said she makes a point of attending each ceremony.

“I need to pay it forward,” she said. “Somebody put themselves out there. I need to put myself out there for them.”

Echoing Kelly’s words, Penny said she isolated herself before the program.

“When you isolate yourself, that is not what you need to do. Gina (Sanderson) teaches you life lessons, helps you bring yourself and the better of yourself out. She brings the best of everybody out and throws it right out there and it’s awesome,” Penny said.

“She gives you the confidence that you can move forward because we all have the skills to do it. We just don’t have the confidence to pull it out and she pulls it out of you. She has wonderful people who come and pour their hearts out for you also.”

A year beyond her own graduation, Penny still has a bracelet, a token of her time in the program to help her when she needs to be reminded. Upon completion of the program, each woman is given a gift.

“I need Gina every once in a while to remind me so I pull out my bracelet and there I am, there’s Gina, I can do this,” Penny said. “We all hit bumps in the road. I know I have that support right there to show me that I can do it. It’s a reminder for myself.”

Fellow alumna Victoria Stanulonis said watching the nine women graduate was overwhelming and powerful.

“I commend every single one of them because it’s not easy going through that and not knowing anybody and not knowing what to do,” Victoria said. “This program helps. For me, watching other women graduate shows me that it’s still working and other women are going to benefit from it.”

Recalling her own time in the program, Victoria remembered the art therapy class fondly and said it is something she still does occasionally.

“I’m very shy, not outgoing. This program helped me get to know other women and know that I wasn’t alone,” Victoria, who completed the program last year, said in a later interview. “For me, it just helped me in my recovery to know that I wasn’t alone.”

‘Going out with a life’

Life hasn’t been easy for Ashley Funk. Born to a mother with substance use issues, Ashley was adopted at age 2½. At 21, Ashley said she tried heroin to understand why her biological mother chose heroin ahead of her own children. Ashley didn’t understand at first but then she became addicted, got in trouble, lost custody of her daughters and was put on probation.

Now 24, Ashley said it felt good to complete the Womanhood Program.

“I never finished anything before, ever. Ever. Ever. I didn’t finish school — well, I got my GED after, but I didn’t finish school,” Ashley said. “I didn’t finish the Womanhood Program the first time. I didn’t follow through with, just like a lot of things.”

With her certificate in hand and her probation nearly at its end, Ashley looked toward her future.

“I just want to get my kids back. That is as far as my future goes so far,” she said. “That is my main focus and what I want to do.”

For Susan Booth, Ashley’s adoptive mother, the program helped bring back her once-positive daughter.

“She’s just a very, very happy person, whereas before she was just so miserable,” Booth said.

Watching her finish the program and accept her certificate was a big deal for Ashley and her family.

“To see that she actually went through all this program, she really put a lot of effort into it, she didn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do that,’” Booth said. “She’s going out with a life now, trying to get her kids back and just being a better mom and being better to her family.”

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