The unique approach of Dismas Home transforms trauma into triumph

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Executive Director Cheryll Andrews (far left) standing outside Dismas Home with some of its current residents. Photo by Tom Jarvis

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In 2016, Dismas Home of New Hampshire (Dismas) was established by Julie and Jack McCarthy to address the needs of justice-involved women with co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness. Offering effective clinical treatments and social support services, Dismas provides a safe environment for residents to improve and rebuild their lives. Once residents are ready to return to the community, Dismas extends continued assistance in job placement, housing, and ongoing mental health support to facilitate their successful reintegration.

“Dismas Home is kind of a unicorn in New Hampshire because we’re the only program in the state that serves exclusively justice-involved women,” says attorney Madeline Hutchings, vice chair of the Dismas board of directors. “After a period of incarceration, someone’s old life may not be there waiting for them. Dismas Home comes alongside its residents at every step of the process. Their recovery journeys are scaffolded by clinical and practical resources to help them become independently functioning members of the community.”

As the only program dedicated solely to serving women in this capacity, Dismas offers a unique two-phase approach to support their journey toward empowerment and independence. The initial 90-day program uses trauma-informed treatment to help residents focus on recovery while restoring physical, emotional, and mental health. Following this, the Transitional Living Program (TLP) equips residents with essential life skills, ongoing therapeutic support, and case management to prepare them for independent living and meaningful employment.

“What I love about Dismas Home is how well they work with the treatment court, so the participant isn’t confused,” says retired Justice Tina Nadeau, who still sits part-time on the drug court. “They speak the same language and give the same kind of motivation. Some bigger sober living homes have very specific rules that sometimes duplicate or conflict with what we do. It can be confusing for the participants and make their recovery even more challenging. But Dismas Home works closely with us and understands what our mission is – that we are all aiming for using best practice standards – so it’s a great symbiotic relationship.”

As a federally registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Dismas collaborates with healthcare providers, social services, the justice system, educational institutions, and local employers to provide tailored support for each resident.

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Dismas Home on Fourth Street in Manchester. Photo by Tom Jarvis

Serving women with complex histories of poverty, involvement in the justice system, and abuse, Dismas fosters a nurturing environment for healing and growth. Through its programs, residents achieve milestones such as securing full-time employment and independent housing, while also developing self-worth and ultimately contributing to their communities and inspiring others through their triumphs.

“The women who come out of prison and choose to enter the Dismas Home program, what they are doing is really admirable,” Hutchings says. “They are not choosing the easy way out, which would be continued drug misuse. The fact that they resolved to rebuild their lives from the inside out to become deeply contributing members of the community is very courageous. And for people who are in recovery, for the people they love, it’s really a generous endeavor. It’s a privilege to be part of their journey.”

Dismas receives approximately 65 percent of its operating expenses from a contract with the New Hampshire Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services, with the remaining funds sourced from fundraising efforts. The home is staffed by ten individuals, including Cheryll Andrews, who assumed the role of executive director in 2021. 

“Cheryll is one of the most motivated, energetic, and positive people,” Justice Nadeau says. “And what I think she does well is she’s very transparent. She is a straight shooter, and she knows how to talk with people about these issues in a way that doesn’t appear to put them on the defensive. She can bring together different groups and talk to them about the value of this home in a way they can hear it, which I think is a true talent.”

Having previously worked more than 15 years in radio sales, Andrews made the transition to the nonprofit world in 2012 as a fundraiser for the American Heart Association. She later worked as executive director for Great Waters Music Festival until the COVID-19 pandemic halted live music.

“I have a sister that spent some time in jail in the early 2000s, and I didn’t know how to help her when she came out,” Andrews says of her motivation to join Dismas. “I had no resources and no knowledge. She found a great program and now she’s living her best life in Texas with her family, but I thought maybe this is my opportunity to help somebody else’s sister.”

Andrews continues: “It’s amazing to watch our residents transform their lives. And all we are doing is giving them the tools to do it. Their treatment plans are built around their personal goals – not what we want for them, but what they want for themselves.”

Andrews notes that while there are multiple Dismas Homes nationwide, they operate independently without affiliation with one another. The name derives from Saint Dismas, also known as the Penitent Thief, who, crucified alongside Jesus, sought forgiveness on Good Friday and was granted a second chance.

“That’s where the name Dismas comes from; the opportunity for a second chance,” Andrews says. “But I have to make it really super clear that we are not a faith-based organization. We do not preach Catholicism or any doctrine, we just invite people to think about things a different way, period.”

According to a report from the Council of State Governments, New Hampshire’s High Utilizer Justice Reinvestment Initiative, there is a small number of people cycling through jails in New Hampshire that are utilizing a substantial number of resources at great cost to counties and the state. These are referred to as high utilizers.

“The three highest characteristics of high utilizers are substance misuse, mental health issues, and behavioral health. So, we serve the high utilizers,” Andrews says. “If we can pull those high utilizers out of that crazy mix, the recidivism rate drops and the out-of-pocket rate drops. She becomes a taxpayer, back to contributing to the society that she lives in.”

According to Andrews, Dismas currently has a 65 percent completion rate.

“We are trying really hard to get a higher level of completion, but I think the kicker is the window of time between the 90-day program and the TLP, where she feels so cool that she finished the 90 days,” Andrews says. “She’s thinking, ‘I’m healed and cured. I did my 90. I’m good.’ What she doesn’t understand is that she’s not yet prepared and we have to be very vigilant to watch that.”

Dismas currently has the capacity for eight residents and serves about 20 women per year. Motivated by a need to expand, they have started a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million to open a second home.

“In 2022, the board said, ‘we want to move forward with a second home on the strategic plan,’” Andrews says. “So, we went through a feasibility study last spring, working with Strong Resource Group out of Portsmouth, and the results of that were pretty stunning. Everyone that was interviewed felt that this was the right project at the right time, and that the $2.5 million goal was not unreasonable.”

Dismas is currently on track toward its goals, barring any other incidents like a recent community appeal that put them in a holding pattern.

“I know it’s hard for people in the community when there are projects like this on the table,” Justice Nadeau says. “It’s also important for us to be educating the community about how you really have no idea who’s living in your neighborhood, but when there is a sober house there – and they are getting care and consistent support, supervision, and guidance – it’s actually better for the community as a whole, I think.”

Hutchings agrees, saying that she feels the community will embrace Dismas once they learn more about it.

“It’s funny – this idea is counterintuitive for a lot of people who are unfamiliar with recovery,” she says. “But you can’t really ask for a better neighbor in the Dismas Home.”

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Dismas Home’s second location is planned for the old Boy Scouts headquarters on Holt Avenue in Manchester and is expected to be operational by early 2025. Photo by Tom Jarvis

Dismas has secured a purchase and sales agreement for its second home, located at 571 Holt Avenue in Manchester, a 10,800-square-foot building that was formerly the Boys Scouts’ local headquarters. With the closing scheduled for June, the organization aims to commence operations at the new location in early 2025. 

The plan is to add 20 beds and approximately 20 staff in the new home and move the TLP program there.

“When you have women in both the TLP and the 90-day program [in the same house] and you bring somebody new in, the energy wobbles,” Andrews says. “New residents take some time to settle in, and those who have been at Dismas for a while don’t really know how to manage the shift. So, there’s an energy wobble until everybody settles down. So, what we plan to do is keep the 90-day program here and move all the TLP people to the second property so that their energy is all the same forward-moving momentum, and they are all in the same phase.”

Dismas Home has many success stories, including a former resident who is now part of the staff. The logo for the organization, the Dismas Daisy, was designed from one of her paintings.

Another former resident, Shannon Nelson, shares that she could not imagine her life without Dismas Home’s program.

“I feel free from addiction, and I am part of the recovery community,” Nelson says. “Most of all, I found myself, forgave myself, and love myself – when before I didn’t. I am powerless over drugs, but I became willing, open-minded, and honest with myself and others. Grateful isn’t even a big enough word to express my gratitude toward Dismas Home. They helped open me up to a new realm of life – a life I want to live – a life in recovery, living as confidently as I can with my disease. That is priceless.”

Angela Lucier, another former resident, shares the same sentiment.

“While I have tried many times on my own to stop using and get clean, I have never been offered help or a program and always fell back into the cycle of addiction,” Lucier says. “Today, I am happy to announce I am 12 months clean and sober with the help of the Dismas Home staff. They have helped me to gain tools and a new way of thinking and understanding my addiction. If it was not for Dismas Home, I don’t know where I would be. Dismas Home truly saved me.”

Inspired by the resilience and transformations witnessed within its walls, Dismas remains committed to providing a beacon of hope and support for justice-involved women seeking a path to recovery and empowerment. With each success story and every life rebuilt, Dismas reaffirms its dedication to fostering a community where second chances are not just granted but embraced wholeheartedly. 

As the organization moves toward expansion, the staff look forward to furthering the mission of offering a brighter future to all who seek its support.


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These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

 

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About this Author

Tom Jarvis

Tom Jarvis reports for NH Bar News.