Probation officer Gina Sanderson’s Womanhood Program helps educate, empower

Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2015

BELCHERTOWN — Gina Sanderson has worked for the Massachusetts Trial Court for nearly 30 years, most recently as a probation officer in Eastern Hampshire District Court. She said in the last three to five years she has seen the number of female probationers grow “exponentially.”

“It was a rarity, back in the day, to see a woman in court,” Sanderson said, noting that she attributes much of the change to the state’s epidemic of opioid and opiate addiction.

Sanderson eventually noticed a trend among the female probationers who were walking into her office — while they participated in therapy or drug counseling, many lacked self-esteem and basic knowledge about health and personal safety. Many of the women felt isolated as they struggled to stay sober or get out of violent relationships, she said.

But while men in the court system could participate in different fatherhood programs, there were no similar programs for women in the western part of the state.

So, Sanderson this year created the Womanhood Program. She sought donations to fund it, found volunteer teachers to lead the 10 weekly sessions, and developed the curriculum. The topics include health, creating a resumé, budgeting, conflict resolution, domestic violence and substance abuse.

“I was trying to pick things that I think are relevant based on getting to know these women,” Sanderson said in a telephone interview this week. She said she hopes the participants leave the program not only with new skills, but also feeling more empowered and confident — and less alone.

“Sometimes you get into this abyss. Things go badly and sometimes you can’t get out of your own way,” said Sanderson, who recruits participants for the free program.

The first 10-week session of the program took place this spring. Seven of the 10 women who started the program in March completed it, and they were feted at a graduation ceremony at the courthouse.

In the fall semester that started Sept. 1, all but one of the 11 women in the program are on probation. Sanderson said most volunteer to attend, as opposed to being ordered to the program by a judge. There’s an incentive to participate — if they complete the 10-week program, they can get off probation three months early.

Judge John M. Payne Jr., first justice of the Eastern Hampshire District Court, said he is pleased women he places on probation can take advantage of the program.

“The concept is very interesting,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. From a judge’s standpoint, Payne said, “it’s a better alternative than incarcerating someone or putting conditions on them that could lead to incarceration. It’s a challenge — a challenge to do something and also to benefit from it.”

He said that while probation departments do create programs to help probationers, it is rare for a probation officer to build a completely new program with volunteers and no funding at all from the court.

“It’s a credit to her,” he said of Sanderson.

Principles of the program

The participants, ranging in age from 25 to 50, met as usual Tuesday night at Belchertown Town Hall. They grabbed snacks and cups of coffee from a refreshment table and then sat chatting around tables covered in art supplies.

To start the meeting, Sanderson led the women in reciting the principles of the program. “I am determined to improve my life and be a better person each day,” they said together, voices echoing in the building’s auditorium. “I have a right to live violence-free as well as drug- and alcohol-free.”

Sanderson asked them to share what they had done over the past week to support those principles. Immediately, one woman reported that she had gotten a job — and smiled widely as she was congratulated. Another said she had thought twice about her actions when confronted with a difficult situation.

The theme of Tuesday’s class was art therapy. Michelle Cotugno, an art therapist who has worked with inmates, encouraged the women to draw their reflections on a poem she read to them. The women sketched and colored throughout the class as Cotugno talked with them about coping with trauma and learning how to be compassionate to themselves when they are having a hard time.

Sketching along with them were two men from Rwanda, Claver Gatabazi and Ephrem Nteziryayo. They are in the area through a fellowship program at Smith College, and have been learning about treatment programs in the U.S.

Barbara Thresher-Morrison joined the group later Tuesday, after she had some time to talk privately with Sanderson. She is the only woman in the class who is not on probation, and Thresher-Morrison said she heard about it from her friend, Gina Zygarowski, who is on probation for drug charges. Both women are from Ware.

During a break, most women headed outside to smoke cigarettes and talk. Thresher-Morrison, 46, said she was not doing well dealing with a “domestic situation” — her husband is in jail, she said — and she thought the class could help.

“I think it would be good for women who have been through domestic situations to take it,” she said. “I like meeting other people and knowing you’re not alone with your struggles.”

More than anything else, Thresher-Morrison said, it has helped her self-esteem.

“My daughter said to me, ‘After you started taking those classes, you talk louder,’ ” Thresher-Morrison added.

Zygarowski, 50, agreed, saying her friend previously was not good at standing up for herself.

“And I used to be the kind of person to sit there and say nothing,” Zygarowski said. Now, she said she focuses on expressing herself at the classes, and does not want the program to end in a few weeks.

Zygarowski said she has been sober for a year. She wanted to go through the program because she likes to learn and was “all for” anything that would keep her on track in her sobriety. She had been using prescription pills for years, she said, and then used heroin for about a year before she got sober. Like her counseling and group meetings, Zygarowski said, the Womanhood Program gives her something to look forward to — and a reason to get “dressed up” and out of the house.

Joining the group this week was Tammy Wilson, 36, of Ware, who graduated from the program in the spring. She said she came back because she missed attending the classes, and the art therapy was not offered in the spring semester. “It’s a positive atmosphere with women doing positive things,” she said. “You can get away from the stress at home.”

Wilson said she has been sober for 11 months and is on probation for drug charges. “At that time I was only a few weeks into recovery so I needed as much positive influence around me as I could get, so I jumped in,” she said.

She also learned a lot, Wilson said. “I grew up on the street, so there were some things I never learned,” she said.

After learning how to create a resumé and do well in a job interview, Wilson she landed four jobs.

Building the program

Sanderson said she felt compelled to start the program and has had a lot of support. She estimated that it costs about $750 for each semester, including refreshments, supplies, class materials, and the gifts she awards to each woman who completes the program.

This semester, the Zonta Club of Northampton Area awarded her a grant that will cover the costs of the gifts, and she plans to apply for an innovation grant offered by the state court system.

Besides spending some of her own money, other donors included friends, family, colleagues and Judge Payne. He was among the approximately 70 people who attended the first-semester graduation this spring.

“For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve really accomplished something like that,” Payne said of the seven graduates. “They were recognized for completing something positive. They were proud of themselves.”

Sanderson said that in each of the semesters, the women who grudgingly agreed to participate would shuffle in reluctantly to the first few classes. But by the third class, she said, they were hurrying in to sit down next to a friend and start catching up and laughing. She wants the women to bond and “network” to help each other when the program ends.

“That is my real hope — that a woman realizes there’s someone she can call for a cup of coffee when she needs to talk,” Sanderson said.

She calls other probation officers to spread the word about the class, and some participants are from as far away as Montague and Chicopee. Sanderson said it would be great to see the program expanded so it was more accessible to women who live outside the area.

From her first graduating class of seven women, only one has ended up back before Payne in court after “falling off the wagon,” Sanderson said. While no program can completely prevent recidivism, Sanderson said, anything that can be done to give these women a better chance to improve their lives and stay out of trouble with the law is a step in the right direction.

“They are so worth my effort,” she said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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