“Fears are tangible and may not be eliminated but we do not have to be controlled by them. When we change our thinking, we change the way we see the world around us. We find that as we navigate the obstacles, we uncover opportunity.”
It is trite to say our world has changed and we live in fear. In March, I was in Ireland at an international meeting with the leaders of my religious community. Surrounded by the beautiful Irish coastal countryside and with an emerging backdrop of COVID-19, Sisters from Ireland, England, Ghana, Nigeria, and the US discussed the future of our international group. With the 8-hour time difference, the early mornings allowed me opportunity to follow the news of California from the day before and be in contact with the Crossroads staff before the next day began for them. Our much anticipated major fundraiser for the year with Martin Sheen and Melissa Fitzgerald reading A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters had to be cancelled.
Since my return … businesses have closed…movement has become more restricted…and we pay attention to numbers like a bookie managing his bets. Terms like social distancing, essential businesses, shelter-in-place, have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Empty streets, extended lines outside stores, and face masks are common sites.
The Crossroads office is closed to the public but our work continues as usual and women continue to come asking for a new beginning. As we try to ease their fears, we also learn from their resilience and determination. Fears are tangible and may not be eliminated but we do not have to be controlled by them. When we change our thinking, we change the way we see the world around us. We find that as we navigate the obstacles, we uncover opportunity.
I grew up in Lakewood … a short 35 miles from Claremont. As a kid in the 50’s, our backyards were safe havens. Typically, you could tell where everyone was, from the noise drifting over the rooftops. We played together, got into fights, plotted grandiose schemes, and dreamed of what life would be like when we “grew up.”
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the “life” that happens in the Harvard House backyard. Thanks to Life Bible Fellowship Church in Upland, it has been upgraded and transformed into a beautiful safe haven complete with a meditative bench in the “Lifer’s Rose Garden.”
However, what catches my interest each time I am in the backyard is the large tree that is central and provides significant shade to most of the area. In many ways it is representative of both Crossroads and the women we serve.
In my early days at Crossroads, it was more of a nuisance than anything else. It was mostly dirt and dried leaves below the scraggly branches, and it was impossible for grass to grow beneath it. Sometime in the 90’s it was cut down to a stump that was a little too high for sitting but provided a good perch for brewing sun tea.
At some forgotten point in time, the tree took on a new life of its own. Shoots not only sprouted from the stump but completely overgrew it. A few women in the program, who had worked in forestry, took the tree into their care – pruning the right branches and allowing sunlight to filter through. The branches are twisted and scattered but today it provides a beautiful canopy of shade for the women to enjoy sitting outside … listening to the birds … writing in their journals … visiting with family and friends … a safe haven.
It took Rebecca 79 years to finally find a loving home, but find it she did at Crossroads, the residential facility for women coming out of prison, and the site of two of Uncommon Good’s urban farm plots. Rebecca grew up in Bakersfield, the child of a single mom who’d left her husband, an abusive drunk. Unfortunately, she didn’t leave soon enough. Her older children had learned their father’s violent ways and regularly beat Rebecca up. The child took extra abuse for trying to shield her younger sister, whom she still calls “Baby” even today when “Baby” is 72 years old. To escape the physical and emotional pain, Rebecca started drinking at nine years of age. In adulthood, the alcohol led her into damaging relationships and hurt her ability to parent her own children. Eventually, she ended up in prison, along with one of her daughters, a drug addict. At age 79, when she was finally up for parole, it seemed that there was no one left in the world who cared. But that wasn’t exactly right. Sister Terry Dodge, the longtime Executive Director of Crossroads, attended her hearing and convinced the parole board to set her free. Rebecca returned with Sister Terry to one of the two homes operated by Crossroads in Claremont. She has settled in happily, cooking meals for the local homeless, helping with clothing and toy drives for children, and attending AA meetings. At last, at 79 years old, Rebecca can say:
“Crossroads has changed me 100%. I’ve learned new tools, how to have a better life. It’s so friendly here. It’s a new world for me, a new life that I never had before.”
Sister Terry radiates a grounded, loving, maternal energy. To be in her presence is to feel both accepted and inspired. We first got to know each other when she generously offered to let us use the Crossroads yards for our urban agriculture program. We’ve been growing vegetables there ever since, aided by a grant that Sister Terry obtained from her religious community, the Sisters of St. Louis.
On a recent blazing October afternoon, of a kind for which Southern California is infamous, we sat on the porch of one of the Crossroads houses and talked about how this work had become her life’s mission. Like Crossroads resident Rebecca, Sister Terry also had a beloved younger sibling, a brother nine years her junior. Before she entered the convent she had a motorcycle, and she would use it to pick him up from school, which instantly made him one of the coolest kids on campus. The two were exceptionally close. Tragically, however, while he was in high school he was introduced to heroin and became an addict. At times during his addiction, his sister was the only person who knew where he was. When she finally knew that he was ready to accept help, she looked into resources for him when he was paroled from prison and was extremely frustrated to come up empty-handed. By that time she had entered the convent and was a teacher. But her experience with her brother inspired her to want to change careers to do something for parolees. She offered her services to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles but was told that she couldn’t be employed in the detention ministry because she was a woman. So she moved to Oakland to volunteer in that archdiocese’s prison ministry. Ultimately the Archdiocese of Orange and Crossroads both offered her jobs and she chose Crossroads.
Under her leadership, Crossroads has grown dramatically, providing housing, education, support, counseling, and employment training in a homelike environment for 32 women each year. Sometimes the women have served decades in prison for a simple reason such as they happened to be in the car when their idiot boyfriend decided to pull over and rob a liquor store. In such cases, they need to be introduced to the trappings of the modern world, such as computers, which may not have been a part of the workplace when they entered prison. Beating all the odds, 86% of Crossroads women are self-sustaining after six years.
Initially, though, Crossroads met with some NIMBY opposition. At one meeting in which hostile neighbors showed up to protest the presence of a Crossroads house, Sister Terry was challenged, “How do you make these felons change their ways?” She responded simply, “I just love them.” That her love is powerful and effective is proven by the Crossroads graduates who have gone on to earn Masters and Doctorates and land impressive jobs. But she is just as proud of her elderly residents, such as Rebecca, who are experiencing themselves reborn and giving back by volunteering, and her graduates who have learned how to live simply, happily and productively on limited incomes. “My definition of success,” Sister Terry told me, “is that every woman who comes to Crossroads knows she is safe and loved.” And when it comes to the bigger picture, Sister Terry likes to quote the mission of her religious order, which is “to work toward a world healed, unified and transformed.”
That her work is doing just that has been proven by the change she has wrought in our city, from being a community that was afraid of her residents, to one that made her the Grand Marshal of our Fourth of July parade this year in honor of her transformative work with the Crossroads women.
At the end of our conversation, I spoke to Sister Terry in the vernacular of her faith, asking, “Do you believe we are ever going to create the kingdom of God on this earth?” To which she replied, “Aren’t we doing it already?”
Sister Terry Dodge really thinks being Grand Marshall is a big deal
Sister Terry Dodge will not be doing a royal wave at the upcoming Fourth of July parade.
The executive director of Crossroads, a Claremont-based nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women, is so excited to be the grand marshal that she’s planning to wave enthusiastically to the crowd as she makes her way down Indian Hill Boulevard next Wednesday.
When asked how she reacted to the news that she would become grand marshal, Sister Terry said she thought of her parents.
“When we were kids, we grew up in Lakewood about 40 miles from here, and every year there was the Pan-American parade, and going to that as a family was always a big deal,” she said. “So it’s a lot of fun.”
Sister Terry has been leading Crossroads since 1989, and during that time has helped hundreds of formerly incarcerated women get back on their feet and lead productive and lawful lives. Crossroads has two halfway houses in Claremont, a rental property used as a transitional center in Pomona, and an office on First Street, where the COURIER met with Sister Terry to discuss her work.
Sister Terry became involved with Crossroads after working with her brother, who at the time was in and out of jail and was frustrated with the post-release system. It inspired her to leave her previous career in education.
“Everybody looked at history, what people had done rather than what they hoped to do, how they wanted to make change,” she said.
Crossroads has had enormous success in helping women re-enter society. Workers and volunteers at the shelter teach women how to handle money, how to score a job interview and keep that job, how to multi-task in a modern world, and sometimes even how to read and write.
“What we do is we journey with the woman every step of the way,” Sister Terry said. “We don’t do for her what she’s capable of doing for herself, but we don’t assume she knows how to do everything.”
Volunteers who work with the nonprofit include art teachers and cooks who teach important life and social skills.
“To listen to the conversation that goes on, it’s just two women having a normal conversation,” Sister Terry said. “And that’s so very important.”
The work is an effort to reduce the culture shock of being released from prison into a different world. For some women, especially those who have been paroled after being given a life sentence, it could be difficult to near impossible to find their footing.
All of this happens within six months’ time. Despite the seemingly limited time frame, up to 95 percent of women who enter Crossroads have not returned to prison.
Sister Terry has a lot of success stories of women who were helped by the Crossroads program. There’s Lou, who was released from prison when she was 88 after serving 24 years. Crossroads helped her get her social security card and her SSI before she settled down with her sister in Michigan.
There’s Pauline, who had a lot of fears and medical issues and seemed destined to fail, who burst into Sister Terry’s office one day and said, “Sister Terry, I’m not afraid anymore.”
There’s one woman who was picked up by Sister Terry once she was discharged from California Institute for Women in Chino who entered the program not knowing how to cook and left with an expert command of a turkey dinner. For Sister Terry, the beginning of that path to success is simple.
“To me, the most important success is that everyone who comes, knows she is loved, knows that we care about her,” Sister Terry said. “It’s not about her history, it’s about her future.”
Of the roughly 13 people who work at Crossroads, more than half are formerly incarcerated women who have been helped by the program, Sister Terry said. The nonprofit operates on a shoestring budget, and funding is always an issue, but it’s enough to do the work.
“We’re not here for the money obviously, we’re here for the mission,” she said.
One of those employees is Jackie, a former participant in the program who went on to get her bachelor’s degree in sociology and now works as Crossroads’ program director.
While the majority of Claremonters support Crossroads today, the group has had its ups and downs since opening in 1974. Sister Terry remembers trying to buy a home on 12th Street in 2009 and being met with opposition from the neighbors. It got ugly, she said, and she withdrew plans to buy the house.
“I said, ‘Why would I buy in a place where we’re not welcome, where the women I love would not be welcome?’” she said. “There’s no way I would buy this house.”
When word of the incident spread, Sister Terry said people would come up to her around town to offer support.
“There’s people in Claremont that do not want us around, and that’s okay,” she said. “But the majority of Claremont welcomes the women that I work with. And that’s what’s so wonderful.”
In the end, the overall goal for Crossroads is not only bringing incarcerated women back into the community, but pushing to change the narrative from looking at someone’s past into looking at someone’s potential.
“If we want to change society, we have to look at people differently; we can’t keep talking about us and them,” she said. “There has got to be a we.”
Ultimately, Sister Terry says, part of that change is to create a better system that focuses on bringing recently paroled people back into the community, and that takes strength in numbers.
“I love what I’m doing, but the work I do is not amazing, it’s amazing because not enough people are doing it,” she said.