By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Her dream is to take a picture surrounded by all nine of her children.
For years, that was an impossibility for Geraldine, a 47-year-old former crack addict, because she was in and out of prison. Seven of her children were resentful because they were raised by their aunt.
It wasn't until her last run-in with the law that she decided to change.
"I said I need to get my life together," said Geraldine, of Harlem, whose last name is being withheld by DNAinfo. "I didn't have a bond with my own kids."
After being arrested for trying to sell drugs recently, Geraldine, who was raised in an abusive household and sexually molested as a child, fought to get into to a residential treatment program.
She wound up at Greenhope Services for Women in East Harlem. Now, she's one of 72 women who occupy the agency's brand new $15 million Kandake House, on East 119th Street between Pleasant and First avenues, which provides an alternative to incarceration for the mostly non-violent offenders.
"I've learned that I am somebody. I have a voice. I can be a good mother. I have great potential," said Geraldine who has begun the healing process with her children. "I've learned that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to and that I don't have to be afraid of success."
At Kandake, women who have been jailed and are on parole or who are part of a pre-trial intervention program, will receive intensive services aimed at helping them recover from their addiction issues and reclaim their lives. Eighty percent of women served by Greenhope have two or more children. That's why the facility will also allow 28 of the 72 women to live with their children.
Thursday, African drummers and a jazz band celebrated the opening outside the environmentally-friendly building. Kandake was the title for "queen" in the ancient African empire of Nubia.
Executive Director Anne Elliott said the program takes a holistic approach to helping the women she calls "warrior queens." Three quarters of the clients have been physically abused and 60 percent have been raped or molested. All but five percent have a history of drug abuse and 75 percent have not finished high school, obtained a GED or gained any work experience.
"We want them to realize how badly they had to fight for survival to make it to this point," she said.
In addition to getting substance abuse treatment and medical care, the women will get job training and counseling. There will also be yoga and massage. Acupuncture and tai chi classes will help the women learn to cope with the stresses of life without turning to drugs.
Most importantlly, said Elliott, the center allows women to remain in their communities as oppossed to being imprisoned hundreds of miles outside the city. Up to 400 women will also receive treatment at the facility through outpatient services.
"We believe these women have a disease and if they weren't economically disadvantaged, their job would send them for treatment or they would have the money to pay for it themselves. This is the alternative for poor women," said Elliott. "Prison is not designed for healing."
Irma, 43, of the Bronx, called the program a "life saver." After 58 arrests for prostitution and other crimes during the past 30 years, she was facing a two-year stint behind bars before being placed with Greenhope.
"If I wasn't here I'd still be drugging," said Irma who first ran away from home after being molested at the age of 11. "It's like they are helping you to learn to be an adult all over again."
For Irma, that means strengthening her relationship with her 13-year-old son and getting her GED. Her goal now is to get a certificate to become a computer technician.
"I want to have a home and be a responsible mother," she said.
Robin Stone, vice-president of the board of directors for Greenhope Services for Women, said that their clients aren't the only people who benefit from the program.
"By creating a safe place where women can do things like focus on their parenting skills, we are affecting the next generation," Stone said.
That's the case with Rosa, 37, who moved to Greenhope with her 3-year-old son J.J.
After her jaw was broken by an abusive boyfriend and she required surgery, Rosa, originally from Puerto Rico, says she began relying more and more on marijuana for relaxation and pain relief until she became addicted.
The program has taught her how to become more sociable. Her son is in day care and she can focus on her goal of finishing the final year of her bachelor's degree and working toward becoming a professional photographer.
The room she shares with her son is filled with toys and pictures she's taken of J.J., her favorite subject. The desire to smoke marijuana has slowly dissipated, she says.
"I feel the love here," Rosa said through a spanish interpreter. "The staff is here to make sure I succeed."