Women find faith, sobriety and a new life at Walter Hoving Home

When Jesus brings you to the end of yourself, the only thing you can do is find a new beginning.

It’s a simple creed, one that Melodie Lee has followed since living through a personal hell on the streets, doing unspeakable and un-Christian things to fund her daily crack cocaine addiction.

She thought she was condemned to a life of drugs and prostitution until Dec. 22, 2007, when she believes Jesus made her pick up the phone and call the Walter Hoving Home in Pasadena, Calif.

During the next year, she lived in the all-female rehabilitation home, building a relationship with God and a foundation for a drug-free life.

“Jesus has been so faithful to me. He took me from under a freeway in Los Angeles, brushed me off and gave me a brand new name,” says Lee, 47.

She tells this story sitting in the dining room of her new home, the Walter Hoving Home in Las Vegas. Like the other women living here, Lee’s story is astonishing for its details. But it has a happy conclusion: She lives a sober and humble life, holds a good job and helps people. Lee hopes her story inspires other women who have yet to find their new beginning.

While getting sober for the second time in her life (the first was in 1994), Lee discovered she has a knack for programming and planning so, after finishing the program, the founders of the Hoving Home offered her a job in Las Vegas as facility director. Now, she spends her time helping the residents get through their days and keeping the house in working order.

The 12-month program is heavy on God, teaching recovering drug addicts that their life can have meaning if they live it through the Lord.

The Walter Hoving Home was founded in 1967 in upstate New York by Elsie and John Benton. Deeply religious, the couple created a faith-based rehab program for women. It is named after the former chairman of Tiffany & Co., because he helped raise the money to get the project started. A Pasadena home opened in 1985. Together, the first two campuses can accommodate 110 women, 60 in New York and 50 in California.

The Las Vegas location was founded in September 2006. Currently, there is space for eight women, but the hope is to expand it to house 14.

“Some people told us we needed to go to Vegas because there’s a lot of drugs and prostitution,” says founder Elsie Benton. “We feel this is the answer, that God helps people and has a plan for their life. And we believe that they can be successful.”

Despite the potential for community resistance, no one has seriously objected to the work they do, Benton says. The women live in a residential home zoned as transitional living. Anyone who might object to recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes living in a Las Vegas neighborhood are invited to visit the home to see what it’s all about, she adds.

Women usually come into the program when they get out of jail. Lee and her two co-workers, all graduates of the program, get the word out about the home by visiting the jails and talking to women who have been arrested on prostitution or drug charges.

Over the years, about 4,000 women have finished the program in all, Benton says. Twenty-five percent of the women who enter the program stay, but 86 percent of those who finish do not go back to their old lives.

Some of those who leave the program were using the home as nothing more than a get-out-of-jail free card, Lee says. Offenders who promise to enter rehab can get released early from jail, she explains.

Often, women are put off by the religious aspects of the program.

Desiree Peters was. At 32, she had already been to rehab 12 times, relapsing each time. She moved into the Hoving Home in March and has been sober ever since, the longest stretch of sobriety she has had in years. She plans to finish the program.

“They told me it was faith-based and that usually freaks me out,” says Peters, who came to Las Vegas from Arizona in November.

Peters is a tall woman with dark hair and dark eyes. Dragon tattoos on her arms give her an air of toughness and she has a matter-of-fact, hard exterior that cracks only when she talks about her three children. She lost custody of them because of her drug use; they live in Arizona.

When she says she hates something, you believe her. For her whole life, she hated God.

“I always cursed him because I had to take a hit of crack at 12 and have two crack babies and a daughter who hates me,” Peters explains. “I always hated him for all this stuff. Why me? Why did I have to take a hit of crack and why did it have to lead me where it did?”

She doesn’t sound as emotional as those words seem; she’s simply explaining how she has felt about God throughout her life. Those are some of the issues she works on in the program. And it is working, she says. As resistant as she was to the focus on Jesus, Peters says she thinks that’s the key.

“I know that’s what it’s got to be. It’s got to be the God stuff,” she says.

Peters grew up in Douglas, Ariz., a small border town with a large Hispanic population. Her mother is Mexican, her father white. She didn’t speak Spanish, which made her an outsider in her town.

“Eventually, I just kind of hooked up with these little outcasts,” she says.

One night at a party, someone passed a bong around with marijuana and crack in it. She loved it. Smoking crack became a daily thing.

Peters had a baby with her drug dealer; it was her only pregnancy during which she didn’t use drugs, she says. Eventually, she left him and ended up living with another man. Another baby followed. Her boyfriend treated her well, at first, she says. He wanted her to stay clean, but to encourage her, he used physical violence.

For years, Peters thought this would be her life. It seemed like a fair trade-off: sobriety for regular beatings. Then he died in a car wreck and she lost custody of her kids.

Another man taught her how to make money smuggling undocumented immigrants across the border. She made lots of money, she says, before having a baby with him. The state took him away and Peters, tired of her life and distraught over losing custody of her children, decided to leave town.

“I was so depressed, I hitched a ride and ended up outside the Silverton,” Peters says. “I didn’t care what happened to me or where I went.”

Four months of homelessness followed, during which she prostituted herself to earn money for drugs and the occasional motel room, where she was able to shower and sleep on a clean bed, she says. It was a dangerous way to live. Once, a man drove her out to a deserted area, beat and robbed her. Peters says she thought she was going to die.

Finally, a jail chaplain found her in a weekly motel and told her about the Hoving Home.

She needed the structure it provides, she says.

The women’s lives are planned down to the hour. They have devotional from 7 to 8 a.m., followed by breakfast. Then they exercise, have choir practice, or perform drug awareness outreach, which is how the women earn money. They talk at churches or hand out literature in front of stores, taking donations from anyone who wants to give, Lee says.

The women can’t work at a job while they’re in the home, but they must pay $500 a month. The money comes from either relatives or their drug awareness funds. No one is kicked out if they can’t pay, Lee says. In that case, the nonprofit covers the cost.

In all, the women spend more than six hours a day five days a week in the Learning Center, a classroom where they learn the curriculum that will serve as the foundation for their recovery. The Bible plays a major role in those lessons. They go through it in a year and must learn 66 verses well enough that they can recite them from memory.

There are other rules, too. No contact with men who aren’t relatives. No smoking, inside or out.

It’s not easy, says Traci Rickus, the principal of the Learning Center. A former crack addict and alcoholic, Rickus was involved in prostitution and bondage pornography before getting sober and graduating from the Hoving Home.

“Healing is hard,” Rickus, 42, says. “But it is worth it.”

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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