Kevin Riordan: Group helps women reenter society from jail

From left, client Leah Sabatino with Lioness Pride director Cheryl Marlowe, vice president Sharon Walden.
From left, client Leah Sabatino with Lioness Pride director Cheryl Marlowe, vice president Sharon Walden. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 28, 2012

As her mother and her daughter trimmed the tree, Leah Sabatino realized how far she's come.

"I didn't think I'd be sitting at home watching my family decorate for Christmas, after what I went through," says Sabatino, 31, a recovering heroin addict from Philadelphia's Frankford section.

Last spring, Sabatino was doing time, again, after violating probation for a 2011 drug conviction in Pennsauken. Losing her sobriety and returning to the Camden County Jail meant "horrible disappointment in myself," but it did reconnect her with Second Chance, Cheryl Marlowe's counseling and mentorship program.

Marlowe, who has offered the weekly class inside the jail for five years, is putting together a new program for women reentering the community after they get out.

"When you're released, you need a clear vision of what you want to do next, so you don't fall back into the same situation that got you in there to begin with," she says.

Marlowe, 51, of Lawnside, this year founded Lioness Pride, a nonprofit seeking to help women like Sabatino avoid relapsing - and re-offending - after incarceration.

The new organization had a fund-raising event in November and has applied for private foundation grants for a proposed "safe house" for ex-offenders in Camden County.

Marlowe, an IT support specialist at 6ABC, hopes that as many as six nonviolent offenders will be able to stay for 30 to 60 days in the proposed residence while taking computer- skills and job-readiness training on site. The proposal has attracted support from addiction-treatment professionals as well as retired Superior Court Judge Richard Hyland.

A Lioness Pride board member, Hyland praises Marlowe's compassion and says the concrete approach of skills building and job readiness represents "hope for a better life."

Often, female ex-offenders who struggle with addiction "have trouble finding a safe place" when they reenter the community, notes Sharon Walden, vice president of the Lioness Pride board. "They need to get away from all the drama of their old lifestyle."

A part-time substance-abuse counselor who lives in Lawnside, Walden started the Second Chance program 10 years ago and later passed the reins to Marlowe.

Both women believe in the 12-step model of recovery, which stresses spiritual development, personal responsibility, and hard work.

"We talk to the women about living life on life's terms without having to take a drink or a drug . . . in spite of all the ups and downs - relationships, road rage - life can present," Marlowe says. "This is our main focus. If you want self-esteem, you must do estimable acts."

As anyone who's ever tried to stop smoking can attest, breaking a bad habit isn't easy. Now imagine trying to recover from heroin addiction while carrying a felony conviction.

Sabatino, who has been looking for work since she was released in October, is also trying to repair her relationship with her family, particularly with her daughter, Damenica.

"I did so much damage, I thought I had lost them," Sabatino says, adding that her daughter "got used to the fact that Mommy wasn't going to do what she said she was going to do.

"Now, instead of disappointment, the brightness is back in her eyes," she adds. "She's not afraid that every time I leave, I won't come back."

The question, Sabatino says, is whether people on the outside "see me as this destitute, prostitute drug addict, or . . . as a real person."

Marlowe has an answer.

"We see Leah as a success story," she says.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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