Reaching Out

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Gerri Lynn Smallman

getimage By Jim Day
The Guardian

Terror struck the moment Cheryl Millman walked through the correctional centre door.
“Scared to death,’’ the minister recalls.
“When those doors banged and started buzzing behind me, I thought ‘what am I getting in to?’’’
But Millman was not to be frightened away from what she saw as her true calling.
For four years, she had nurtured people at The Coffee House at the former CN Pensioner’s Club on King Street.
She regularly encountered people facing so much need while enduring such great personal struggle.
“Just lovely people when you sit down and talk to them,’’ she says.
In 2005, Millman and the late Wanda Livingston established Open Door Ministries (recently renamed Open Door Outreach) as a non-profit registered charity.
She notes that Livingston, who had worked at the former Salvation Army Thrift Store for many years, was “street wise’’ while Millman was “church wise.’’
Programming has grown significantly over the first decade for Open Door.
Five different programs are offered to the female inmates at the Provincial Correctional Centre in Charlottetown with focus on life skills, self-esteem, creating healthy boundaries and even working to improve the prospect for employment.
“I think we really evolved as the need has evolved,’’ says Millman.
Programming is offered every Tuesday, 50 weeks a year, at the prison on a rotating basis between Millman and Wendy Hawbolt.
The pair also both provide one-on-one mentoring with inmates that seek out this very personal soul searching to help get to the root of their problems that has landed them in jail.
Millman also makes her way into the prison on Wednesdays to put on a meditation class she calls “soaking.’’
Drug and alcohol addiction is a common theme that drives women to steal and to prostitute themselves in order to feed their habit.
Some of the women Millman has worked with started using drugs and began drinking booze at age 12 or 13, and have never been sober for any extended period since.
Time spent in jail may be the only time spent clean. Open Door tries to make the most of this time to help these marginalized women undergo a positive, personal transformation.
Millman is in awe of the resiliency shown by so many of these women that have endured lives nothing short of hellish.
“It is so easy to judge people…then you sit down and hear their stories,’’ she says.
“There’s some horrific stories out there.’’
Millman takes each and every positive step made by an inmate as a victory for that person. The true size of the step taken is relative. Even inching forward in some cases is akin to climbing a mountain.
“There’s many, many stories of varying degrees of success,’’ she says.
Gerri-Lynn Smallman, 38, of Summerside is a former Sleepy Hollow inmate making personal strides forward – and she gives plenty of credit to Millman.
Opiate addiction and a cocaine habit have combined for a great deal of strife in Smallman’s life.
Stealing to feed her addiction has been the main crime that has led her to jail four times, with the longest sentence stretching over eight months.
Smallman opened up to Millman. She talked about her troubled life.
She grieved the loss of her boys, taken years ago from an unfit mother and placed in foster care.
She listened to Millman, because she saw her as a person who was genuine in effort and desire to help.
“Cheryl comes across as very warm – a mothering type,’’ says Smallman.
“Every time I seen her, she would give me a big hug. You can feel the compassion.’’
Millman was also persistent, particularly in one-on-one mentoring. She worked to set Smallman on a better path.
“It got pretty intense some nights,’’ says Smallman.
“It helped. People said they noticed a difference.’’
Smallman says she wants to continue to grow her ongoing success story.
She got her GED while in prison. She has been on a methadone program for 14 months, and has started reducing the level over the past couple months.
She goes to Narcotics Anonymous.
And she plans to eventually go to college with a long-term, albeit distant and perhaps unattainable goal, of one day getting her children back.
“Everything I do is for them,’’ she says.
But, at least, she has a chance, and she wants to make the most of her opportunity.
Does she think she would still be in jail today if not for Open Door and Millman?
“Possibly,’’ she says.
“I think I would be dealing with a lot of emotional turbulence – and of course my way (of dealing with adversity) was to use drugs.’’
Millman says she hopes Open Door has shown women that God loves them and that they have the potential to move forward and leave behind the life of an inmate.
“As long as there is breath in your body, there is hope,’’ she says.
“We want you to thrive.’’