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Jim Kenyon: Dismas House feels like home

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/17/2020 10:07:24 PM
Modified: 10/17/2020 10:07:21 PM

After a brief stint in prison last fall on a drug possession conviction, Jeff Lockyer hoped to move back into his old apartment in Wilder.

Lockyer’s parole officer asked his landlord if he wouldn’t mind taking him back. The landlord “decided he would mind,” Lockyer told me.

Although he was clean after years of battling alcohol and substance abuse, there was still a “stigma attached to me” for having spent time behind bars, Lockyer said.

Lockyer, who joined the Army out of high school, figured his only option would be one of New England’s homeless shelters for veterans, which he had relied on from time to time.

But before he went that route, his parole officer had an idea:

What about Hartford Dismas House?

“I’d never heard of it before,” said Lockyer, who grew up in Lowell, Mass.

The 11-bed Hartford Dismas, which opened six years ago in Hartford Village, provides men and women just out of Vermont prisons with an affordable, supportive place to live while they get back on their feet.

It’s among four transitional homes that Dismas of Vermont operates in the state. Rita McCaffrey, of Rutland, with help from her late husband, Frank, a former state judge who helped establish the state’s drug court system, started the nonprofit organization in the early 1980s.

Like many small nonprofits that operate on shoestring budgets, Dismas has seen the pandemic put a serious dent in its fundraising efforts.

Hartford Dismas’ annual dinner and auction, which attracts sellout crowds of 250 people or more, was planned for springtime. After COVID-19 hit, the event was rescheduled for September, but with the pandemic still raging that became impossible as well.

Hartford Dismas was counting on the event bringing in roughly $60,000 — nearly 25% of its annual operating budget. The money helps pay for heating and utilities, which run about $15,000 a year. Groceries eat up an additional $10,000.

To help offset costs, Dismas residents pay $85 a week for room and board. Some residents work as dishwashers, but with restaurants struggling during the pandemic even those low-paying jobs are harder to come by.

Other residents look for work in the construction industry. But under Vermont’s arcane rules, offenders who are released early from prison can’t leave the state. That means if a Vermont contractor has a project in New Hampshire, Dismas’ residents can’t go to the job site.

As the pandemic enters its eighth month, “a lot of residents are struggling to keep up,” House Director Jeff Backus told me.

The 66-year-old Lockyer doesn’t have that worry — he has Social Security benefits and a pension from years of working as a machinist to fall back on.

Most of the men and women who live at Dismas are in their 20s and 30s. Lockyer is currently its second-oldest resident.

“Having the older guys helps stabilize the group,” said Backus, a Vermont corrections officer before joining Dismas in 2017. “They can speak to their experiences. They’ve been through it.”

The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Providence, R.I., estimates that at least half of U.S. prison inmates “committed the act they are incarcerated for while under the influence of drugs.”

Crystal meth, a powerful and highly addictive drug that affects the central nervous system, was often Lockyer’s demon. In 2019, he was charged with possession of methamphetamine, and he later spent time at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt.

After receiving treatment for his substance disorder at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, Lockyer is putting his life back together.

He’s also found a way to give back to Dismas. With the annual fundraising dinner and auction having to be called off twice now, Dismas is “chipping away with everything we can think of,” to pay the bills at the house on Maple Avenue, Backus said, including looking into federal COVID-19 relief grants.

On a smaller scale, Kristi Saunders, a physician who serves on Hartford Dismas’ governing board, suggested auctioning off a handcrafted quilt. “I do quilting, but I’m not that great,” she said.

Saunders reached out to four women — Joleen Shepard, Patty Schottes, Susan Parker and Merry Ferranti — in Upper Valley quilting circles for help. They weren’t familiar with Dismas House, but when they learned who would benefit from their handiwork, they all volunteered, Saunders said.

Lockyer, along with other current and former Dismas residents, was asked to put into words what Dismas has meant to him. Several wrote about Dismas’ accepting environment and the opportunity it presented for a “new beginning.” Their words have been embroidered into pieces of the quilt, which will be raffled off on Dec. 14.

Between now and then, the quilt will be showcased at Upper Valley nonprofits and businesses. More information, including how to purchase raffle tickets, can be found at https://dismasofvt.org/hartford-dismas/quilt-raffle.

Last week, Lockyer wrote about Dismas, incarceration and recovery on the nonprofit’s Facebook page. He wants people to have a better understanding of the vital role Dismas plays in reintroducing offenders to their communities.

“It’s pretty much unanimous with the guys here that the root of our criminal behavior lies in alcohol and drug abuse,” Lockyer wrote. “Simply putting down the drink or drug isn’t enough; we need the support of each other to get through the tough times.

“There’s an incredible sense of relief when you realize you’re not the only one that feels the way you do, when you realize you’re not alone.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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