Sale plants seeds of hope

Trees: Women determined to turn their lives around sell Douglas firs to raise money for a program that's helping them pursue their goals.

December 05, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

No more. That's what she told herself that last time in jail.

Octavia Teal, 34, had been in and out of the Baltimore City Detention Center so many times that she likes to say jokingly, "They probably got my name on a wall there for best attendance." But after getting caught with drugs while on parole and thrown back in jail this year, she decided, "This time when I come home, I'm not going to go back to using anymore."

She was going to get clean and be a mom to children who, thanks to drugs, she hardly knew. "I have my mind made up," she said.

A fledgling group called Let's Start Baltimore is helping Teal and seven other women keep their promises to stay clean and get their lives on track.

Yesterday, on a corner in downtown Baltimore, the group made its public debut: selling Christmas trees.

A small start, but the group's founders, two women from St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, have big plans. They're modeling Let's Start after San Francisco's Delancey Street, a famed enterprise where addicts and convicts come to turn their lives around while working at one of the center's profit engines - a cafe, a moving company, a car repair shop.

Someday, that could be Let's Start. But as the name implies, yesterday it was just getting started.

The small but hearty group spent most of the day trying, with cold hands, to turn the corner of Calvert and Madison streets into something official - something that said "business."

During the brisk and bright afternoon, Teal and fellow group member Josephine Branch fastened frosted white pinecones onto fresh wreaths. Group founders Bridget Muller and Phyllis McKernan cheerfully cursed the propane heater that overturned onto the cookies they planned to sell. A few more volunteers manhandled Douglas firs onto tree stands, hung lights that seemed determined to fall and kept hot coffee coming from a shop around the corner.

But by the end of the afternoon, 100 trees - minus 10 that had been sold - stood at attention, dropping needles and wafting a piney scent across the lot. Festive lights stretched across the space. They'd created a business.

Muller, 42, a poet and writer of short stories who also works as a bartender, hopes the tree sale brings in enough money to buy a van for the group and pay for driving lessons for the women. Leftover cash would go toward renting a meeting space, something that could turn into a residence where the women could live.

Muller and McKernan came together through volunteer work at the detention center. McKernan and her husband, Bernie, led a Bible study group there. Muller was running a literacy effort called Mother Read, through which jailed women could improve their reading skills and introduce children's classics to their kids.

The Let's Start idea advanced both of their efforts to help women in trouble succeed outside of prison.

"They would leave, but with no thought of what they'd be doing when they got out," said McKernan, who is a hairstylist. "They had no established purpose. We wanted to give them something to look forward to."

Muller wants Let's Start to be an alternative to prison.

"These are people who've made mistakes, who've grown up in rough neighborhoods," she said. "How can you just turn your back to it?"

This summer, Muller flew five of the Let's Start women to San Francisco to see the former addicts working at Delancey Street. "Just getting that into their heads was an important realization," she said. "They saw people like them acting like executives. They were executives."

That was Josephine Branch's first airplane trip.

The 43-year-old from East Baltimore got pregnant at 15 and starting smoking pot at 16. Then came heroin. Nearly 27 years later, she was still doing it.

"I was getting high for 27 years," Branch said yesterday at the tree lot. "From 9 in the morning until 9 at night, I was out there using." Although her parents fought to get her into programs at least five times, she always slipped. "I just kept going back and back and back," she said. "I wanted to stop, but I didn't know how."

A few years ago, she hit her limit. "I was tired," she said. "I was really, really tired. I prayed and asked God to help get me out of this situation."

When she got arrested on a parole violation soon after and got a two-year sentence, she took that as God's answer.

"I was so happy," she said. "I was saved. I even thanked the judge for saving my life."

Now Branch works as a loader at a book bindery. She's also studying for her General Equivalency Development diploma - "Everything I was supposed to be doing when I was using," she said.

She and Teal both call the Let's Start women family, the positive influences that keep them going.

They're proud to be the group's pioneers and enjoy the idea of leading other women down the path they stumbled on.

They want to be role models, "to tell them where we came from and where we are now," Teal said. "There's a better life and a better way."

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