Editorial: Womanhood Program offers probation lifeline

  • Ashley Funk, center, smiles while surrounded by well-wishers after graduating from the Womanhood Program on Nov. 17 at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Womanhood Program at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown offers a lifeline to women whose journeys have been rough.

It is an innovative approach to probation that combines skills such as preparing for job interviews with activities including yoga and art therapy, and aims to turn women away from the criminal justice system. Just as importantly, the 10-week program gives women the self-confidence they need to turn their lives around, as well as a support system drawn from the instructors and the dozen or so participants.

Ashley Funk, 24, of Granby, was among the nine women who celebrated their completion of the program with a graduation ceremony Nov. 17 at the courthouse in Belchertown. The smile on her face as she accepted her certificate of achievement said much about the emotions she felt: “I was just like, ‘I did it!’ ” Funk told Gazette reporter Emily Cutts, whose three-part series “A Positive Probation” concluded Tuesday.

“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,” Funk said. “I didn’t finish the Womanhood Program the first time. I didn’t follow through with, just like a lot of things.”

As Funk describes the past three years, she tried heroin at age 21 so she could understand why her mother had chosen the drug over her children. “I wanted to know what was so good that she couldn’t give it up for us. 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? I got myself addicted and then felt the pain and felt the withdrawal. And I understood.”

She got clean for a while in 2015, but around Christmas that year began using heroin heavily again. Funk lost custody of her daughters, who are now 5 and 8 years old, and was convicted of drug possession, prostitution and shoplifting.

She had tried the Womanhood Program once before, but her job at the time made it difficult for her to attend all the classes and Funk said she didn’t fully benefit from them.

This fall, though, Funk finally took advantage of the support offered by the Womanhood Program, especially sharing her experiences with other women. “Everybody there has a past that is similar or completely different from yours, but they are all there for the same reasons,” Funk said. “You get to meet people. For some people, it is good to know that they are not alone.”

As her probation ends and she continues Suboxone treatment for her addiction, Funk looks forward to a brighter future. “I just want to get my kids back. That is far as my future goes so far. That is my main focus and what I want to do.”

Probation officer Regina Sanderson, who has more than three decades of experience in the Massachusetts court system, started the Womanhood Program in 2015 after she saw more women getting sentenced to probation. Sanderson also was struck by the isolation felt by many of those women.

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

Sanderson pieced together grants and donations to run the program in the spring and fall each of the last three years. Instructors volunteer their time. Some of the participants are recruited by Sanderson, while others are referred by the Northwestern district attorney’s office or ordered by a judge to attend the program.

Sanderson’s vision means a lot to the women who complete the program. Alumna Penny Ethier of Granby, who attended the Nov. 17 graduation, said, “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 gives you the confidence that you can move forward because we all have the skills to do it.”

That’s a powerful endorsement for a program that gives women the tools to lift themselves up.