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Need for clothes when women leave prison sparks project

By Virginia de Leon

To empower women released from Pine Lodge Corrections Center in Medical Lake and give them hope as they start a new life, Tracey Waring of Spokane provides them with free clothes.

Without the clothes, most who leave Pine Lodge re-enter society wearing the state-issued uniform of tan pants, a tan button-down shirt, a white T-shirt, white socks and a pair of black Velcro sneakers with clear plastic soles.

Tracey Waring
Tracey Waring at The Clothes Closet

Tracey founded the Great Opportunities for a Lifetime (GOAL) Project, two years ago as a student at Eastern Washington University. The base of the project right now is the Clothing Closet.

Clothes ease transition into mainstream society: pants, blouses or dresses to boost confidence; a professional outfit for job interviews; a warm coat, comfortable shoes, pajamas, undergarments, a purse, duffel bag, toiletries and other basic necessities.

“This is a new beginning for the women,” said Tracey, a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Spokane. “If they feel they belong to the community, it makes a difference. These are the nicest clothes some have ever owned.”

Beyond looking and feeling good, they realize people care about them.

Tracey, 48, understands the shame, alienation and emotions women feel as they are released from prison. Four years ago, she left Pine Lodge after serving a 26-month sentence for theft.

She didn’t speak of her felony conviction for more than a year, but as she helped women experiencing re-entry, she realized it was time to share her story.

“I regret what I did and still cringe at the hurt I caused,” she said. “My goal now is to be a voice for the voiceless and a face for the faceless.  As I became an advocate, I realized I couldn’t speak for others until I told people what happened to me.”

While living in the Seattle area awaiting her sentencing, Tracey had support from a group from Episcopal churches. They stood by her side for years, through her arrest, investigation and court appearances, and then visited or wrote her in prison on a regular basis.

Their friendship contributed to her transformation.

“When everything fell apart, they still loved me unconditionally,” she said. “I wanted to be a Christian and live a life of integrity because I knew, no matter what happened, God will be there.  God is now the center of my life.”

At Pine Lodge, Tracey enrolled in information technology classes taught by instructors from the Institute for Extended Learning of Community Colleges of Spokane.  This experience led her to stay in the Spokane area to pursue a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at Eastern Washington University.  She applied for admission while at Pine Lodge.

When she was released in April 2005, Tracey wore an olive green pants suit, black shoes and make-up her family provided, while other women leaving that day wore their prison clothing.

Her sister met her and drove her to their mother’s home in Vancouver, Wash.  Other women boarded a bus, each carrying a box with their name and Department of Corrections (DOC) number.

After caring for her sick mother for two months, Tracey decided to return to Spokane to go to school and start a new life.  Living on her own was scary, and she was aware of stereotypes about people with felony convictions.  She knew she would not be welcome everywhere.

For the first six months while adjusting and finishing credits at Spokane Community College, Tracey lived among sex offenders at a transitional apartment complex in downtown Spokane. Contacts at SCC helped her find an affordable studio apartment near Gonzaga University, where she lived three years while commuting by bus to EWU.

Tracey Waring

Tracey Waring

A friend’s reminder that women finishing their sentences needed clothes led Tracey to spend extra money buying and sending clothing to the prison.  Eventually, she realized she needed to find other ways to provide clothing.

John Neace, chair of EWU’s interdisciplinary studies program, encouraged her to pursue her dream to start a resource center for women transitioning from prison.   As part of her studies, she researched the clothing program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor and wrote the DOC a proposal about starting one at Pine Lodge.

While waiting to hear back, she made contacts in the community and built a coalition of groups, churches and agencies willing to donate clothing.  

Nine months later, the DOC approved the project.

“Having ‘street’ clothes allows women to re-enter society as members of the community,” Tracey wrote on the GOAL Project website. She points out that if clothes do not label them, the women are less likely to become targets for drug dealers and others looking for a vulnerable partner.

Since October 2007, the Clothing Closet has helped nearly 400 women.  A week or two before they leave, volunteers help them select outfits in a walk-in closet full of clothing at Pine Lodge.

Every week, donations are dropped off at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 2404 N. Howard. 

The Clothing Closet receives support from other Episcopal and Catholic parishes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other churches in the region.

College sororities, community organizations and individuals throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho hold clothing drives.

Tracey hopes to expand the GOAL Project to include transitional workshops, job skills development, housing resources and community advocacy.

She is working on a master’s degree in social work and public administration at EWU and attends evening classes at Gonzaga University for a master’s in religious studies.

During graduation for her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, Tracey received the Frances Huston Medallion “for academic excellence and outstanding community service.”  In 2008, the DOC honored her as the Volunteer of the Year at Pine Lodge.  She also serves on the board of Rebuilding Families, Inc., a nonprofit coalition of grassroots organizations working with women in transition.

For information, call 868-7235, email tracey.waring@thegoalproject.org or visit www.thegoalproject.org.

Copyright © October 2009 - The Fig Tree