A Positive Probation, part 1: Women seek to exit criminal life with new skills, self-confidence 

  • Ashley Funk, left, and Kelly Starzyk listen during a yoga class at Belchertown Town Hall that was part of the Womanhood Program. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren Conkey pauses to chat during an art class that was part of the Womanhood Program. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk, center, and her sister, Brandylee Funk, practice a self-defense maneuver as Randy Haskins instructs them during an installment of the Womanhood Program, Sept. 12 at Belchertown Town Hall. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk walks to a meeting with her probation officer, Gina Sanderson, Nov. 14, at Eastern Hampshire District Court. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ashley Funk, left, talks to her probation officer, Gina Sanderson, Nov. 14 in Sanderson's office at Eastern Hampshire District Court. Funk is in the Womanhood Program, which was created by Sanderson. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Monday, November 27, 2017

First of three parts

The first time Ashley Funk tried heroin, at age 21, she couldn’t understand why her mother had chosen the drug over her.

“I wanted to know what was so good that she couldn’t give it up for us,” said Ashley, now 24. “I didn’t understand. This isn’t worth losing your kids over. Why can’t she not use this? Why is this so good to her?” But then, Ashley got hooked. “I got myself addicted and then felt the pain and felt the withdrawal,” said recalled. “And I understood.”

As Ashley struggled with her addiction, she also found herself running afoul of the law, was convicted of crimes including drug possession and prostitution, and wound up on probation.

As part of her probation, she enrolled in the Womanhood Program, a course run by the Eastern Hampshire District Court probation office in Belchertown. Launched in the spring of 2015, the course aims to reduce recidivism by giving women the skills and confidence they need to chart a better path.

The Womanhood Program brings a small group of women together weekly in the Belchertown Town Hall auditorium for 10 weeks. During that time, the women learn about a variety of topics including anger management, self-care, personal safety and art therapy.

In addition to gaining skills, many of the women foster relationships with one another — something probation officer and program founder Regina Sanderson said is just as valuable as the formal programming. Sanderson said she started the program when she saw the number of women going through the court system growing. The real impetus, Sanderson said, was the isolation many of the women felt.

“When they come in and tell me I am the person they have to talk to about their life, that is a problem,” Sanderson said. “When you don’t always have family, you need to find a mechanism to meet peers, to talk to peers.”

“I can talk to women about domestic violence. I can talk to women about their opioid addictions,” Sanderson said. But Sanderson can’t offer the same direct experience as the program’s participants. “There is great value in women speaking to women,” she said.

Program participants

Not every woman on probation out of the Eastern Hampshire District Court takes part in the Womanhood Program.

Reviewing the case list daily, Sanderson said she looks to see if there is someone who might benefit and also works hard to recruit participants with a strong prospect for success. Woman come to the program in a variety of ways. Some are referred through the district attorney’s office while others are ordered by a judge to complete the program.

Occasionally, women who aren’t on probation take part in the class.

“I want these women to meet one or two other women who are really trying to do the right thing,” Sanderson said.

Most of the women who enter the program don’t know others in the class on the first few sessions, but for Ashley Funk there were two familiar faces in the group — including her sister, Brandylee Funk, 21.

For most people in the class, though, it takes a couple of weeks for relationships to form. By the end of the program, two women who knew nothing about each other sat side by side sharing headphones as they worked on journals during the art therapy program.

Toward the end of that class, the women took time to discuss what they had put inside their journals. Always willing to share, Ashley said she had written a paragraph about the multicolor pen she was using.

Ashley’s willingness to share isn’t limited to the program. Late last month, she welcomed the Gazette into the Granby home where she lives with her boyfriend and his extended family to talk about her life.

‘You are not alone’

A “long, stupid line of violations” led Ashley to the Womanhood Program this fall for the second time. Ashley said she was originally sentenced in Springfield District Court to a year of probation for possession of heroin and prostitution, and then she “violated and violated and violated” the conditions of her probation.

At first, Ashley said she only used heroin occasionally. But after she began using heavily, she was arrested in January 2015, got clean for a while but then, around Christmas of that year went “headstrong” into using again. As a result, she lost custody of her daughters, who are now 5 and 8 years old.

Convicted of shoplifting, drug possession and driving with a suspended license, Ashley found herself facing probation again and again. She is finally set to be off probation following graduation from the program.

Now in therapy and on Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, Ashley said she came into the program with the intention of getting everything she could out of it.

“The last time I walked in, I didn’t really pay much attention,” she said. “I wasn’t there really to gain anything.”

One of the most helpful things Ashley said she got from the program was sharing experiences with the other women.

“Everybody there has a past that is similar or completely different from yours, but they are all there for the same reasons,” she said. “You get to meet people. For some people, it is good to know that they are not alone.

“I guess that is kind of what I am there for. I’m there to show people you are not alone.”

Chance to start anew

Lauren Conkey, 24, came to the Womanhood Program after being asked by Sanderson to participate. While Sanderson is her probation officer, Lauren’s legal troubles began in California.

A Belchertown native, Lauren moved to the West Coast three years ago to seek treatment for an eating disorder and substance-use issues. Lauren said she was out there for about 10 months before things “really started to go south.”

Lauren said she met a man there who steered her in the direction of crime. Lauren did not want to provide specifics but she ended up in jail for about 3½ months. She also was pregnant. After jail, she was released into a residential treatment program. But as her due date neared, she found herself homeless.

“They washed their hands of me and said ‘good riddance’ and left me absolutely homeless with a newborn baby in California,” she said. “There was no way I was going to find job at the moment because of my criminal record.”

Her time in jail was a good thing, she said.

“I’m grateful for that experience because it gave me the separation I needed not just from the choices I was making but from the people that I was around,” Lauren said. “I’m not sure I would still be making the same bad decisions but I would certainly still be around the same people who clearly didn’t do me any good.”

After she was left “high and dry,” Lauren said her probation officer eventually told the court she needed to be sent home to Belchertown. Back at her parents’ home, Lauren now has a more stable and supportive environment.

“We thought it was a great idea for her to get out, be accountable, have to be somewhere at a certain time, maybe learn a few things,” said Toni Conkey, Lauren’s mother.

Toward the end of the program, Toni said she’s noticed a difference in Lauren.

“Especially after the anger management class,” Toni Conkey said last month, sitting in the family’s living room. “It was nice to hear her come home and hear her talk about other people and hear her realize her life isn’t all that bad.”

During the second week of class, instructor Gary Blanchard shared a bit of his own history and struggles as he talked to the women about anger management. He said that anger itself is not good or bad — that is determined by how a person handles it.

“Some people say anger runs in the family. It’s not something like heart disease or diabetes,” Blanchard said. “It’s a learned behavior.”

One way to deal with that anger, Blanchard recommended, is to take a timeout from the situation — take a break from the argument and get some space to get your thoughts together.

The women left the class that week with a book on the topic and instructions to wear comfortable clothing for the next session.

Monday: Ashley, Lauren and their classmates learn how to “make violence miss you.”

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