The first thing Tina Vucci sees each morning is her daughter’s piercing, milk-chocolate eyes staring back at her from a small picture on the wall in her Alexandria bedroom.
Eight-year-old Gina is hanging over the side of a pool. A pair of large green goggles are perched on her forehead, and the first hint of a mischievous smile creeps across her sun-soaked face.
The picture is a portrayal of summertime gaiety, but to Vucci it is a reminder of all that she is missing. She has neither seen Gina, nor talked to her, in more than four years.
Many mornings it’s a struggle for Vucci to get out of bed. Memories of the past five years sweep over her: The battles with an addiction to crack cocaine; stealing money to feed her habit; prostitution; nights hiding out from parole officers; excruciating chemotherapy sessions.
But when she stares at the pictures and drawings of her daughter that cover the wall, Vucci is imbued with a sense of purpose. The pictures give her strength and remind her why she is here, in a transitional house for women recently released from jail, trying to permanently kick her addictions and put her life back together.
"I look at her and I want to recover this time," said Vucci, 37. "I’m showing up for life now. I’m getting stronger every day and I’m getting closer to her."
THE FRIENDS OF GUEST HOUSE dwelling sits at the end of a quiet suburban street in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. The interior is filled with plush furniture and modern art, and houses 10 women for between three and six months at a time.
The organization was founded 30 years ago as a temporary haven for women who finish serving their time at the Arlington County and Alexandria City jails, but need assistance adjusting to life on the outside. Residents undergo individual and group counseling for substance or sexual abuse issues, and get help landing jobs and finding permanent housing.
"We make that transition a little bit smoother," said Executive Director Kari Galloway. "We give them a place to call home and take a big, deep breath."
It is the only transitional house for female ex-offenders in Northern Virginia, and the demand for its services far exceeds the number of available beds. Twenty-seven women lived there last year, but the waiting list is more than 40 names long.
The organization is supported by a combination of funds from Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax County, the state’s Department of Corrections and private donations. This year’s budget is approximately $250,000, with $38,000 contributed by Alexandria and $43,500 from Arlington.
Often times, women who get out of jail have few places to go. They may have strained their relationship with family members or do not want to return to their old neighborhood for fear of falling back into a life of crime or drugs.
The first two weeks can be a traumatic time, as the women adapt to independent living and an often uncertain future.
"At first we shower them with lots of gifts and love," said Edith Johnson, a senior case manager. "Then we start going to work molding them."
Many of the residents struggle with alcohol and drug addictions, and the house has weekly AA and NA meetings in its expansive basement. Each woman has to go through a mental health evaluation before they move in, and counseling is provided for those who have been the victims of sexual abuse.
"It’s important to break the cycle and start dealing with these underlying causes" that lead the women to repeatedly break the law, said Peter Lunt, the chairman of the board of directors.
Every Monday there is a group meeting where the 10 women have the chance to discuss the progress they are making, air their grievances and give each other much-needed support.
"I’m getting a lot of help building my self-esteem," said Terry Garrett, 38, who has been living in Guest House for nearly six months. "I’ve gained a lot of pride and my attitude has changed."
A few of the women arrive in the house with a job lined up, but the vast majority need help putting together a resume and prepping for interviews. But it’s not easy for the women to find full-time employment.
"An awful lot of places won’t look at you if you have a felony," Galloway said.
The organization also pushes the residents to pursue GEDs or college courses.
After residing in Guest House for between three and six months the residents can apply for their own housing. The counselors work with family services to locate subsidized dwellings in the different localities.
The Guest House counselors continue to check in on the women even after they have moved out to ensure that there are no relapses.
AT THE AGE OF 14, Vucci was molested by a family member. The incident precipitated a change in her personality and behavior, and within months she was experimenting with drugs. For years she dabbled in marijuana, PCP and cocaine, and slowly descended into alcoholism.
Before long she started smoking crack cocaine, and it quickly consumed her life. She lost her job as a Montgomery County school bus driver and was thrown out of her home.
In 2001, she was caught stealing clothes at the Nordstrom in Pentagon Row, with a crack pipe in her purse. The next year she violated the terms of her probation and was incarcerated in Maryland.
During a jail physical she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent intensive chemotherapy. But even that traumatic experience was not enough to wean her off her addiction to crack.
Over the next five years she was in and out of jail and rehab, and lost custody of her daughter.
"I could never get past the first 28 days," said Vucci, sitting at a large, oak table in the dining room of the house. "I was always afraid of success."
After another parole violation last year, she spent 10 months in Arlington jail. The turning point came when she heard that Gina would cry each night for her mother, thinking that she was still in the hospital receiving cancer treatment. Month after month Gina’s father told her that "your mother’s still sick and getting better."
It was time, for the sake of her daughter, to kick her addictions. "I was tired of running and I was tired of using," Vucci said.
When Vucci was released from the Arlington County jail in late June, she moved into the Guest House.
LAST FRIDAY AFTERNOON Vucci and Terry Garrett sat on the back deck of the house, discussing possible job opportunities. Garrett had just finished her second day as a line cook at a seafood restaurant along the Alexandria waterfront, and was beaming with pride as she described how she prepared the calamari and fish dishes.
This is Garrett’s second stint at Guest House, having completed the program in 2001, before falling back into drug addiction and petty crime two years later.
Garrett has worked on and off at Alexandria restaurants for the past two decades, and said she is thrilled to be working again in the food industry.
"It makes me feel real good," she said, taking a slow drag on a cigarette. "I’m taking responsibility for my life."
Garrett tells Vucci that she can probably get her a job working in the restaurant’s kitchen, and Vucci’s face lights up. Garrett has served as a mentor for Vucci the past month, helping her learn the bus schedule and preparing her for an upcoming job interview at the Salvation Army, where Garrett used to work.
"I ask her everything," Vucci said. "She’s so patient. She’s an inspiration."
The other nine women in the house have served the roles of sister, mother and teacher for Vucci. "This house has a lot of love. There’s always someone here to talk to," she said.
Vucci has enrolled in a computer class and is planning to get her GED, in hopes of becoming a counselor to help other women overcome their drug and alcohol addictions. When she completes the six-month program Vucci intends to get an apartment nearby, so she can mentor new residents in the same way Garrett and the other women eased her transition.
On Aug. 15, Vucci will have been clean of drugs for a year. The missing piece, though, is a reunion with Gina.
Vucci has been talking with the father about letting Gina come visit her in Guest House, but she’s not sure he will agree. "He tells me to be patient because he wants to see some more stability first," she said.
She is unsure how Gina will react after not seeing her mother for so many years, but knows she will be unable to control her own emotions.
"I will cry, cry, cry," she said, shaking her head.