Hillsborough House of Hope makes room for women starting over

It’s impossible to know how many downward spirals could have been prevented in the past, but today one organization is helping women released from incarceration find their way back up.

Hillsborough House of Hope, a faith-based nonprofit established in 1998, provides a support system for women transitioning out of correctional institutions. The organization provides positive reinforcement that aids in their personal, social, and professional rehabilitation. 

“We help women work on substance abuse, unemployment, and mental health issues,” explains Linda Chatters-Walker, House of Hope’s Program Director.

Located in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, the transitional shelter encompasses two residences for single women and a newly acquired separate house for mothers and children. 

The first main residence, built in 1925, located on Curtis Street and Highland Avenue,
Sunset Social, a fundraiser being held at the West Shore Yacht Club in Tampa, will raise funds for House of Hope on July 16 from 6 to 9 p.m.
offers a majestically vintage two-story haven with four bedrooms. Each client has her own room, and the residents share an upstairs kitchen with their own pantry. A large balcony overlooks the mossy oaks and bungalows of the Old Seminole Heights historic district.

How do women qualify?

“The most important thing I ask is how much willingness they have to stay clean and start a new life,” Chatters-Walker emphasizes. 

The program is funded primarily by private donors and churches.

House of Hope recently received “small grants” from Raymond James and Allstate according to Chatters-Walker, who says that she and her team are seeking investors interested in donating apartments and assistance in remodeling Walkers Landing, the new home for mothers and their children.

About 70 percent of funding for the nonprofit comes from private donors; about 30 percent is from public funding, explains Board President Debbie Wells.

“We are currently at the beginning of a capital campaign raising funds for Walker's Landing named after our dear Linda Walker. We were in desperate need of housing that would accommodate women returning home from incarceration who are working on reunification with their children,'' Wells says. "There was a strong need for us to separate this population and provide direct services to help these women with the reunification.” 

A fundraiser, Sunset Social, at West Shore Yacht Club, will raise funds for House of Hope on July 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $75 each and can be ordered on the House of Hope website. Raffle tickets are also available. Prizes include a Big Green Egg grill, beach rental, dinner for two at various restaurants, along with other items.  
 
Guiding individual success

House of Hope also works with local businesses and civic leaders to assist the women in transition with living accommodations, individual and group therapy, and job assistance. It’s a coaching template that could be helpful to anyone joining or rejoining the workplace.

“We prepare clients for jobs by teaching workplace etiquette and other skills, coordinating with temp agencies on job placement,” says Chatters-Walker, who adds that she also meets with temp agency representatives, employers, and clients to help resolve conflicts and provide a positive work situation. 

“We have workshops to help clients work on communication skills,” Chatters-Walker adds. “We teach employability and coach clients on how to make a positive first impression.”

Night jobs are discouraged, she explains, because the service industry comes with “people who are using” and presents temptation and opportunities to “slip back into old habits.”

Hillsborough House of Hope workshops delve into workplace dynamics, helping clients know how to navigate away from potentially conflict-filled situations. 

“We help them understand when the cause of workplace problems stems from trouble that they may be causing themselves,” Chatters-Walker says.

It all started with a woman known as the “Chat Lady.” Before founding House of Hope, Margaret Palmer volunteered as a counselor for women serving time in Hillsborough County Correctional Facilities. A giraffe statue named Margaret honors her in the House of Hope’s main residence.

Providing spiritual guidance, Palmer noticed the women’s struggles after release and how many women serve their sentences and leave the system only to return. Through prayer, the devout Christian said she found a calling when she envisioned the House of Hope. 

Chatters-Walker -- one of the women the now nonagenarian counseled before founding the organization -- worked as a supervisor of graduate admissions at the University of South Florida before she hit rock bottom, struggling with alcoholism and an addiction to crack cocaine. Financial problems led to crimes that would land her in jail more than once. 

Divine intervention, Chatters-Walker says, connected her to Palmer.

Sowing hope for "women like you''

“When I saw ‘Chat Lady’ written on the inmate request form, I said, ‘Who's that?’ to the deputy. ‘That's a little old white lady that comes in and prays with you,’ … I said, ‘Oh great: Chat, Chatters! Ooh, that's it!’ So, I asked to see her each time I went to jail. She came to see me, and she said, ‘You know, there's hope for you -- we're going to open a house and it's going to be for women like you.’” 

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other parishioners at Palmer’s church, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, helped get the Hillsborough House of Hope started. After Chatters-Walker completed the program at  DACCO, Palmer invited her to take the role of House of Hope program director. 

Winner of the Unsung Heroine Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Chatters-Walker has been featured on the cover of MTM Magazine. She’s been at HHoH two decades.

“Almost 20 years later, I’m still working there, and I have actually been clean and sober 22 years,” she effuses. “July 25th will be 23 years …. wow.”  

Chatter-Walker “is the heart, soul, love, and strength behind the Hillsborough House of Hope, says Board President Wells. “She is dynamic, empathetic, and always there for our ladies. I am always impressed by her leadership and communication. Her personal story is one of redemption and reconciliation, which makes her vital to our organization.”

HHoH also raises funds through a fashion boutique at an undisclosed location in East Tampa. If you're interested in custom-fitted dresses and suits, call Linda Chatters-Walker at 813-562-5877 to reserve a fitting.

For more information, visit Hillsborough House of Hope.
 

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie was written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.
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