Women Helping Women
The Woman 2 Woman program began three years ago as part of the Bedford Presbyterian Church ministry and has grown to include members from other houses of worship and faiths. Shown are Nancy Gernert, Sue Groner, and Laura Kaplan.
Photos by Rana Faure
It is difficult to imagine life inside the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where scores of women have had no contact with outside world for years, even decades. “Everyone needs someone in their life to be a presence for them,” says Nancy Gernert of Pound Ridge, who heads up Woman 2 Woman, a Bedford Presbyterian Church ministry started three years ago to address that situation. “Everyone in the program has a different relationship with their inmates. Some just go, sit, and listen. Some become real friends. These women have suffered such trauma and knowing that someone cares gives them a sense of dignity.
“Growing up in the area, I was always aware of the prison,” Gernert continues. “When I would drive by, I would think of the women inside—how many of them were mothers, how were they coping with their lives. Now, after getting to know some of them, I’ve been blown away by how intelligent they are. It was a real eye-opener to find out we have more in common than we ever imagined.”
For example, one of the inmates Gernert visits is her age and has five kids, to Gernert’s four. “I have visited Sally* every two weeks for the past three years and she means a great deal to me.” One of the most touching moments Gernert recalls was when Sally wanted to have a memento of their visits. “An inmate in the visiting center will take a Polaroid picture for $2. It doesn’t sound like much, but for a prisoner earning 12 or 13 cents an hour, it’s a huge expense. I was honored that I meant that much to her.” Indeed, Sally considers Gernert’s visits as “God’s answer to my prayers.”
Susan Groner of Bedford once had preconceived notions about what constituted a criminal, but feels less judgmental after spending time with the inmates. “I used to drive past the complex all the time, and to me, it was just a prison,” she says. “These women all made a mistake, but they are wise in their own ways and have a different perspective on life. They are paying their dues and trying to better their lives for when they are released.”
One time-honored path to a better life is the continuing education program within the prison, an incredible deal at just $5 a semester. When Groner’s inmate received her GED, she was invited to the graduation ceremony. “I got to meet all Jane’s* friends, some of whom were getting their associate or bachelor degrees. They were so supportive of each other and everyone was cheering. It was so heartwarming—the one day where they could feel proud of themselves.”
Katonah resident Laura Kaplan felt lucky to have been matched with someone close to the age of her own children. “My four children lead independent lives now so it was rewarding to step back into that role. I remember on the first day, Karen* just needed someone to vent to, someone to be there for her. Now that I have been visiting for three years, I can’t imagine her not in my life. I even take my kids to visit her. She really opened up when she met them and wanted to know all about their experiences with college, careers, their social lives. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship for all of us.”
Once, when asked what the program has meant to her over the years, Karen replied: “Three words come to me: light, because your visits are like a breath of fresh air; hope, because I can envision opportunities when I get out; and gold, because there is so much value in seeing a loving family like yours. It is something I can aspire to when I am released.”
Clearly, a ministry mission accomplished.
*Names of inmates have been changed to protect their privacy.