Guest House Celebrates 50 Years

Guest House Celebrates 50 Years

Guest House today

Guest House today

Half of Century of Hope Gala: 

Half of Century of Hope Gala June 6 from 7-10 pm at ALX Community Atrium Rooftop located at 277 S. Washington Street in Alexandria. Look forward to dancing with live music, mocktails, delicious hors d’oeuvres and desserts prepared by D.C.Central Kitchen and Together We Bake, laughter, joy and heartwarming moments shared by the residents. To purchase tickets or support Guest House:

It all began in 1975 with one woman’s dream to help women returning into society from prison who had committed nonviolent crimes. At the time there was no place for them to go and still today, Guest House is the only residential facility for these women in Northern Virginia.

According to an article in the Alexandria Gazette on Dec. 16 1974, Betty McConkey, a former prisoner herself, decided to set up a place for “delinquent women” to recover. At the time she said, “I had a place to go when I got out and my people stood behind me, but so many women have no one to turn to.” But in the beginning the going was tough, and McConkey said she used to get anxiety headaches wondering where the next month’s rent would come from.

There have been ups and downs since McConkey went out on a limb with few resources and rented the house. She could accommodate up to seven women at the time. She went to Charles Lankford, director of the Fairfax office of Offender Aid and Restoration, also a former prisoner, for assistance, and he reached out to churches and civic associations who came up with clothing, food and rent assistance and even beautician and haircutting services. 

But over time, the house had gradually fallen into disrepair. They had fallen into debt with no way to raise the funds.

Guest House got a second chance when the community stepped in again and a new board rescued them with plumbers, electricians and architects volunteering free labor to renovate the house. The new Guest House board members applied for grants from local jurisdictions including Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties. Kari Galloway, executive director from 2005-2022 says, “It was rejuvenated by concerned citizens who thought ‘wow’ this is a unique niche population and we could be proud of helping them as a community.” When all was finished, they reopened with bedrooms to accommodate eight women.

When Galloway came to take over, Guest House had recently reopened. It was a challenge. She remembers that Guest House was in danger of losing their Virginia Department of Corrections funding which provides over 50 percent of their assistance. When Galloway started the job they had a budget of $179,000 to run 24/7 with eight women. “We only had one full-time staff member so I would cover 10 hours a week myself to monitor doors, boots on the ground. It was good for me to learn the job but as executive director it wasn’t sustainable.

“I fell in love with the women. They deserved a chance,” Galloway said. “I started building infrastructure. They defied expectations.”

Guest House provides a reentry program and support services individualized for each woman in the residence. Many of the women have suffered abuse and have lived chaotic lives. They learn life skills and independent good decision making while attending programs to assist them with self sufficiency and holding down a job. As time went on Galloway added case managers and other staff, job counseling and support as well as mental health resources and training opportunities supplemented with art and dance therapy. 

Guest House on E. Luray Avenue was able to accommodate 10 women but others were living in rental apartments. Sonja Allen, former operations manager at Guest House and current executive director says, “It was not ideal; the women were isolated and apartments weren’t conducive to the programs.” In 2019 Guest House was able to rent a second residence on Payne Street. “It has been fantastic having another residential house; it runs much more smoothly. We try to focus on a sense of community so women can build relationships.”

The need for a residential re-entry program for women nonviolent offenders had always been there, but as word spread among incarcerated women, the waiting list grew long. As the need grew, Guest House saw the State Department of Corrections increase the allocation of women to 17 beds in 2014, 26 beds in 2017 and 30 in 2019 when Guest House opened the Payne Street location. Today the program has grown to include the house on Luray Avenue which holds 10 women plus the new residence house on Payne Street which holds 20 with 17 beds available in the After Care.

Both Allen and Galloway agree that the biggest challenge for the program during their tenure was Covid. Galloway says, “It was really tough. We didn’t want to have too many women in the same space.” She says they wiped down the surfaces every two hours, wore masks and practiced physical distancing including moving the beds six feet apart. “We tried to find them virtual jobs which was hard.“

And the mental stress was difficult, too. “Loneliness is the real enemy of addiction recovery and usually the strong support system at Guest House helps pull people through.” But during Covid contact was minimized as many key providers eliminated in-person treatment, and virtual was much less effective which slowed the mental health and substance abuse recovery efforts. In addition, all meetings including AA were by Zoom. The mentors from outside, who provided a strong support system, stopped coming. 

Allen says, “In addition, Our Virginia Department of Correction funds were tied to the number of women we had, and the dollars diminished. Donations slowed down and also inflation affected our bottom line.”

Deacon Lewis Eggleston, Director of Marketing and Generosity explains, “We get a lot of our women through word of mouth, and during Covid access to the detention centers lessened so our ability to go to these places was severely cut. The process was disrupted and even though the need was still great, the numbers of women applying were down for a while.”

As a result,” Allen says, “We have to rethink things in a new era with expenses increasing for food and utilities and funding decreasing.”

Now 50 years later, Guest House residential program for women is celebrating assisting 5,000 women since it began. The program recently expanded from three-month to a six-month 24/7 supervised residence followed by up to 18 months in the Aftercare program to help the women transition into independent living. 

The structure and responsibility involved with living at Guest House is a big adjustment, and many women struggle in the beginning. But as one former resident comments, ”Real life hits you in the face.” Another adds, “We are amazing women who have made a mistake.” 

And as Galloway says, if they complete the entire program, the recidivism rate is less than 15 percent. The staff now includes 35 full and part-time staff with an additional 150 volunteers, and the budget has grown to $2 million.

Galloway and Allen start to recall the success stories of women who have gone through the program, women who have bought their first home, who do support jobs in doctor’s offices, go back to school, and there’s the woman who worked her way up to day manager at Duck Donuts. And they both laugh as they remember the recent graduate of the program who just became a long haul trucker. “I can just see her,” Galloway says.

Allen says, “The other side of my job is what Guest House has done for me. Life takes crazy turns. I feel at home here, where I should be. I see the impact on women; it fuels me. This is where I am supposed to be.”

Galloway agrees, “Since I left I miss the team and the women. This has been the greatest honor of my life.”