Georgia's Healing House

Veronica Hester is a resident of Georgia's Healing House.

The women in Georgia’s Healing House have a new home.

The historic house at 405 Ridge St. in Charlottesville was built in 1891, and up until recently was a bed and breakfast.

“We moved in a little over a month ago and we’re still getting settled,” Executive Director Sue Hess said.

Georgia’s Healing House was established in September 2015, and is home to women in recovery from substance addiction. The home originally was located in a rental house on Marchant Street, but that house was sold and the board eventually found “the perfect” new house.

An open house to celebrate the new home, which the organization purchased this summer, is being held from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

A capital campaign is ongoing to raise money to pay off the house, and the organization is eligible for a $250,000 Perry Foundation matching grant if it raises the funds by the end of the year.

In 2006, a group came together after their friend Georgia took her own life in jail after dealing with an alcohol addiction. The nonprofit Georgia’s Friends began in 2010 and the healing house opened in 2015.

“Georgia’s Healing House is a safe and structured therapeutic healing home for women that are struggling from addiction, both alcohol and drugs, but also mental health challenges,” said Heather Kellams, director of fundraising, community relations and programming.

The house has served more than 80 women since opening, and Kellams said more than 70 of those women also have had a mental health diagnosis.

“A lot of times, it’s hard to say which comes first,” she said. “Are we suffering from mental health issues and then we drink and drug? Or do we drink and drug and then have the mental health challenges?”

Women have to be at least 18 years old to live in the home, and must follow the house rules, which include observing a curfew and remaining sober. The women also must seek employment, assist with household duties and attend 12-step meetings regularly.

The residents are usually referred to the organization by mental health professionals, other organizations or professionals in the criminal justice system.

The target is that about 45 percent of residents’ income will help support the operation.

“We’re not a treatment center at Georgia’s Healing House, we’re a healing recovery home,” Kellams said. “We connect with Region Ten, the Women’s Initiative and outside therapists.”

Kellams herself is in recovery from alcohol addiction and lives in the house. She grew up in the Charlottesville area and received a degree in social work from James Madison University.

She married her high school sweetheart, had two children and was working her “dream job.”

“All of a sudden, when I was about 43, it came absolutely crashing down,” she said.

“I started drinking wine morning, noon and night and I could not stop.”

Kellams said that even though she always wanted to help people, she struggled to ask for help herself. Her problems got worse and she ultimately ended up in the hospital with her liver and kidneys failing and was given a 35 percent chance of surviving.

Ultimately, her mother found Georgia’s Healing House.

“I started to develop a sense of purpose,” she said.

With her skills as a trained social worker, she’s been leading other women in the house and is in the process of being trained as a peer specialist, she said.

“I wake up in the morning and I’m sober, clear-headed and doing purposeful work, and I have hope,” Kellams said

Tanya Sperl — who has had issues with alcohol throughout her life, primarily associated with a traumatic experience she had as a child — has lived in the house for eight months. She said she was in a psychologically abusive relationship, and she had an obsession with drinking.

“I am learning a lot about myself in this process and really working on how to have a healthy, productive and fulfilling life, especially in relation to my relationships with other people,” she said.

Sperl said all of the women at the house are “wonderful,” and they’re all at different points in their recoveries.

“We all have ups and downs, but I’m really proud of my sisters here at the house,” she said. “I feel honored to have known them and met them, and to be in recovery with them. The bonds that you form early in recovery — some of those people become like family to you.”

For her personally, she said she still has some social skills to work on.

“I think that even for someone like me who prefers to spend a lot of time by myself, I really need help spending time with other people, and this is a safe place to do it,” Sperl said.

Veronica Hester, who recently moved into the house, had been in and out of jail for 26 years, and described coming to Georgia’s Healing House as “the highlight of my life so far,” because of its changing power.

“You have to actually want the change in order to get it,” she said. “I love living here. When I leave and go out to work, I look forward to coming back here every day. It’s like a safe haven for me.”

While in jail most recently, she participated in a number of programs, which Hess said showed motivation and helped Hester in her interview to get a spot in the home.

“It was just mind over matter. I felt like it was time to do something different,” Hester said.

Originally from Fluvanna County, Hester moved to Charlottesville when she was 16 and has many supportive family members and friends in the community. She’s starting to make connections little by little with her sons and grandchildren.

“I take advantage of life today,” she said. “I love the change. I’m so grateful that I’m able to look in the mirror and see someone I actually like this time.”

The women in the house, and Hess and Kellams, are incredibly supportive, Hester said.

“You couldn’t find better people who are really pushing for our recovery, and I’m so grateful today for change,” she said.

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Allison Wrabel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7261, or @craftypanda on Twitter.

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