Continuing the Journey
Esterlina Fernandez admits she was nervous as she prepared to move to her own apartment in Northeast Philadelphia after living over two years at Project HOME’s James Widener Ray Homes. After all, it had been almost 25 years since she had been on her own – with tough years of addiction, incarceration, and homelessness in between. She was grateful to Project HOME for preparing her for this big step, and she knew there would be challenges. “As I felt the key in my hand, I asked myself, what am I going to do with this?” For Esterlina, it was important to remember her past, and not lose touch with what got her to this point.
She also knew that there was an important support for her – Project HOME alumni, other former residents like her who had moved on to their own homes. “I was on my own, but I knew there were others who understood me and would always be a group I could depend on and come back to if I needed anything.”
At Project HOME, many of our residents, particularly those who are older, choose to stay in our supportive housing units. Many choose to move out on their own, which is a powerful and important step worth celebrating. But the process of moving out of supportive housing into a more independent living situation can bring many challenges.
We have always sought to offer support to residents who move out of Project HOME, but in 2008 we started a more formal program as an intrinsic part of our mission. The Resident Alumni Program was designed to create a space for former residents to connect, meet, and create community. It also provides opportunities for residents to stay involved with some of the activities that are available to current residents. The Alumni program is also open to residents who are struggling to maintain or even have lost their current housing and who need extra support.
In 2015, with a growing number of alumni, the program re-assessed its needs, goals, and outreach strategies and evolved into a more formal peer support program. Currently, two Certified Peer Specialists (CPS) staff the program. (A CPS is someone with a personal history of behavioral health challenges who is trained to support others in their recovery). They provide regular communications as well as invite alumni for monthly meetings or special events, and make sure they still have access to resources they need, either Project HOME services or other community services.
“More important than the connection to services is the human connection,” says Valerie Holmes, CPS and Project HOME alumn who has led the program since 2015. “They have been used to the strong support when they lived in Project HOME, and when they are on their own, they still gravitate to good, loving support and understanding.”
Alfonso Geiger, a current resident and CPS who also staffs the program, reflects on his own goals to move on. “It’s a daunting change. It’s what you want, but you don’t comprehend the magnitude of the move.” He cites the need to take up new responsibilities and not go back to bad habits or bad ways of thinking. “The support of other alumni helps you to make it.”
Almeda Smith moved on from our 1515 Fairmount Avenue residence in 2006 to find her own place. Twelve years later, she still connects to Project HOME through the Resident Alumni Program as well as through our advocacy committee and through her service on our Board of Trustees. The monthly meetings of alumni are important to her. “They are celebrations where we get together to share our experiences and challenges when it comes to ‘the outside world’ and talk about how we are managing.”
Solomon Frazier lived for two years at Project HOME’s Hope Haven, a supportive residence for men who have gone through a recovery program. With a steady job and determined to succeed, he “was ready to continue on with my journey.” But he knew there was lots to learn – paying rent, getting a W-2 form, dealing with persons who didn’t understand recovery. Project HOME’s Resident Alumni Program is part of a support system that helps him “feel connected and protected.” Employed at SEPTA as a maintenance custodial driver, Solomon occasionally gives talks for Project HOME. Speaking at the recent Grand Opening of the newly expanded Hub of Hope, he said to the crowd that included numerous political, civic, and business leaders, “I would never have believed I’d be here today, talking to all of you. But today I want to live.”
For Esterlina, the Resident Alumni Program means “you always have a home and people who will continue to help you to grow.”
All of us go through transitions in life – including some challenging ones. Transitions are often the times when we most need each other’s support and care. We are glad to be able to offer this support to residents who are taking the next step on the journey home – and we are grateful to our alumni for their courage and strength.
If you are or know a former resident of Project HOME and want to get connected to our Resident Alumni Program, contact us at 215-232-7272 ext. 3065.