For Good: The Red Tent Women's Initiative provides safe space for transition to stability

Her feet were bleeding from walking so much. That’s a primary memory from the seven years she was homeless as a younger woman. Still young today, she now spends her days creating with her hands -- making little wooden lighthouses and dream catchers. And she helps others.

Amanda E., who asked that we not use her last name, celebrates with women on a similar path at the Red Tent Women’s Initiative Holiday Open House party in St. Pete. The women mingle among themselves appreciating the Christmas music and companionship -- a time for many that is much more beautiful than the past. They are learning the gift of giving, and creating, not just for themselves and not just for the holidays, but life-changing and beyond.

“I really didn’t know if I was going to make it,” says Amanda, a Red Tent participant.

Amanda marks these holidays with one year of sobriety and says that the Red Tent Women’s Initiative has helped her through her bout with unemployment. She was homeless for seven years, and her parents died when she was young. She soon became addicted to alcohol and chemical substances and has a non-violent felony charge for possession. This and a strong yearning to find a better way of life, led her to the Red Tent. They’ve helped her to connect.

Powerful impact

“The Red Tent really helped me to feel like I’m a productive member of society and like I could make a positive change, and be part of a community,” Amanda says. “I was sexually abused as a young child, my mom sold me for heroin. A lot of people don’t want to believe that human trafficking happens right here in Pinellas County.” For sale art made by one of the women at the Red Tent.

Many who come into the Red Tent Women’s Initiative (inspired by the novel “Red Tent” by Anita Diamant) via jails are victims of sex trafficking, as girls lent out to pedophiles to support their parent’s drug addictions, according to Barbara Rhode, Founder of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative Inc. and a licensed marriage and family therapist, based in St. Pete. Others have survived sexual abuse from family members. Many battle alcoholism and addiction. 

Though Amanda’s family life has been a severe struggle, she’s now creating a new family through the women at the Red Tent, and women she connects with and mentors in sobriety. Still, she struggles to find an income.

“I’m having a hard time finding a full-time job, because of incarceration,” Amanda says.

These common issues motivated Rhode to start a Red Tent group. Her inspiration began when she worked at Goodwill teaching life skills and making mental health assessments. She saw women separated from their children and the trauma from that. She watched women diagnosed with PTSD and the downward spiral of substance abuse. There she saw the plight of women trying to rebuild their lives after incarceration. The Red Tent seeks to create a sacred space for women going through such changes, including hormonal changes, and depression.

The experience led to Rhode’s vision for the Red Tent Women’s Initiative, which brings art and life skills classes into the Pinellas County Jail. Women receive transferable credits toward the Pinellas Technical College, and a free support group for women when they get out of jail. They learn to make things with their hands, and there’s a storefront where arts and crafts the women make are sold.

“The women are so grateful, especially in jail, that there’s a safe space for them,” Rhode says. “They feel at the bottom of the totem pole. The women can tell that we care and that we’re going to treat them the way they want to be treated.”

Yet she was concerned about whether women would come to her art classes in jail where they can learn to sew, embroider, and make crafts.

“Women sleep their sentences away,” Rhode says.

But within three weeks, the Red Tent group had a waiting list of inmates wanting to participate, and that’s been the case ever since.

Measuring success

“It’s been amazing, and we really are having an impact,” Rhode says. “The statistics from the Red Tent’s efforts are leaning toward showing a success rate of women who have gone through the Red Tent and staying out of jails and prison, versus those who haven’t. The numbers look good."

A woman in jail once said to Rhode, ‘You see me the way that I’ve always wanted to be seen.’

“That captures the essence of the Red Tent,” Rhode says.

Amanda helps to carry on the legacy of helping women.

“This is why I take recovery so seriously,” Amanda says. “My hope is that if I can help somebody to feel like they can change their life too. If I can help even one person, then it’s all worth it.”

The Red Tent Women’s Initiative is always accepting and appreciative of any arts and crafts supplies, monetary donations, sewing machines, and volunteers. To contribute or learn more, visit The Red Tent Women's Initiative website.

Read more articles by Amber Sigman.

Amber Sigman is a photographer with over 16 years experience covering both small-town and international stories; from a Florida woman visiting her native Cuba, to sacred spots in Thailand, and underwater adventures in Florida’s springs. Amber also taught photography to teenagers with the theme “The World is Your Classroom” in Southeast Asia honoring both her love for education, and diversity. When she isn’t taking pictures, she can sometimes be found globetrotting, snorkeling, or volunteering with animals.
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