Past, bureaucracy haunt Vision House director

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Vision House had been in full operation for more than two months when Theresa Taylor began writing her grant.

During the first few weeks of operation, it was a rare and cherished moment when Theresa got to spend quiet time by herself. Such was the case on a beautiful May day at her house on Route V, but this wasn't the type of quiet time Theresa craved.

In fact, she wasn't really alone at all.

A laptop Dell computer, a glass of Pepsi, a few highlighter pens and several stacks of paper kept her company on May 11, 2005, which was so far the warmest day of the year.

Dressed in cutoff denim shorts, flip-flops and an olive-green tank top, she worked with the front door open, which let the sunshine and her chocolate-colored, hazel-eyed dog come and go as he pleased.

Plenty of work was undone around the house. The laundry was clean, but not put away; the weeds outside were beginning to overtake the flowers and plants that Theresa spent many hours planting and nourishing in years past.

Theresa's own house and plants were taking second place to a different house. Although she wasn't getting paid yet, the Vision House had become priority No. 1. A huge percentage of her time went to fertilizing the potential in drug-addicted homeless women.

And it wasn't just the plants and housekeeping that suffered.

A phone call came in at about 3:30 p.m. It was her son Justin, her pride and joy, calling from school, needing a ride to work. There had been a miscommunication of some sort, and he couldn't get to his job. Theresa apologized, but told her son he was going to have to find some other way. She couldn't pull herself away from her grant application. Justin and Theresa's husband, David, were both involved in the Vision House. They supported Theresa through their words and actions. The Vision House had become a central focus of the Taylor household, which in this after-school instance caused a rather heated conflict between mother, husband and son.

Twenty-something years of drug and alcohol abuse, including 17 years of homeless life had robbed Theresa of many things: relationships with her children, a "normal" life and, because of all the meth she inhaled, her voice. But on that particular May day, Theresa wished most of all she would've had a typical education. She never was a stupid person -- her survival methods had given her a savvy kind of intelligence that couldn't be learned from books -- but she quit school when she ran out of a nasty life as a seventh-grader. She always liked writing, even when she was strung out on methamphetamine. She was always a good communicator and had no trouble getting her GED by the age of 21.

But when she stared at the laptop on her coffee table that May afternoon, her past haunted her again.

She had worked through the grant process the year before; the previous owner of the apartment building had operated the facility with a government grant. The building was free as long as the occupants met certain low-income requirements. Theresa helped fill out the paperwork and get the grant transferred to the Vision House.

She had tried and failed to get other grants, including the same one she was applying for this time. It was a "scattered site leasing" grant application for $300,000 for three years. The grant was to help subsidize the rent for women who were ready to leave the Vision House but had children and still wanted to participate in some Vision House programs. It would be another step toward independence.

The grant would not be crucial to the Vision House. Theresa had decided long ago that the Vision House would not rely on government grants to keep it going. She refused to let homeless, addicted women hang by a bureaucratic thread year after year.

The Vision House, she promised herself, was going to be provided for by God. He would find a way to make ends meet through donations. The government would not control the Vision House itself.

But another step for mothers and their children would be nice.

She had another two weeks, until the 27th, to get everything done, but as she stared at the computer screen, it seemed an impossible task. She had never taken a typing class, so she couldn't type without looking at the keys. Government-type officials helping her with the process warned her of the "Logic Model" document -- Theresa didn't yet know what that meant -- which would take at least 18 hours by itself.

An ethics section was causing most of the trouble that Wednesday afternoon. It was written in typical governmental, lawyerly gobbledygook.

Confused by the wording, she called a friendly bureaucrat from the Department of Mental Health in Jefferson City to ask what a particular "no gift" clause meant.

"On the gift provision, well, we do accept gifts," she said over the telephone. "But does this mean that I, Theresa Taylor, can't accept bribes? Is that their politically correct way of saying it? Because that's not a problem."

The man said he thought so but didn't know for sure what the form meant, so he said he'd look up something and fax over a document.

Theresa hung up the telephone and went back to work. She sighed and said she wished she could hire a professional grant writer. If only the Vision House had an extra $1,500 lying around.

What Theresa lacked in polished intelligence, she made up for in scrappiness. As difficult as grant writing was, her instincts were serving her well in the bureaucratic world. She had developed numerous sources over the last year or so. She got to know many pastors and civic leaders, people who worked with the United Way. Through those sources, she got her hands on copies of successful grant applications and she was learning the language. She had a two-page glossary of government acronyms. The former street rat knew that CPS stood for Complete Psychological Services, that CSA stood for Controlled Substance Act and that MHTF stood for the Missouri Housing Trust Fund.

When the bureaucrat's fax came over, Theresa just about lost it. What was just a simple question apparently had a complicated answer.

"Oh come on!" she exclaimed. "Eight pages? I'm never going to get this done. I'm just not educated enough."

As she went back to work, however, there were women back at the Vision House who had children. Mothers like Melissa Mackey, who was desperately missing her daughter, Olivia, who was living with Melissa's mother. Melissa, still a long way from being able to make it on her own in the real world without drugs, would benefit from this grant when and if the time came.

Theresa returned to her computer.

Around the time Melissa Mackey and the rest of the women at the Vision House were getting accustomed to the rules, the religious devotions, the 12-step meetings and the mundane and drugless life, a young woman named Katie Ruppel was in some serious trouble in St. Louis.

Her background was like many of the others, filled with heartache and poor decisions.

She snuck her first cigarette at 13 years old, started hanging out with the wrong crowd, soon smoked pot for the first time.

At a small party, after playing a round of truth or dare, her friends left her alone with an older boy she knew.

While rebellious, Katie was relatively innocent. She'd never even kissed a boy.

The boy that night did more than kiss her. He raped her. She remembers saying no. And no again. And no again. But she was 13 and vulnerable and defenseless.

She told no one. She felt ashamed. As if the rape was her fault.

She turned to drugs even more than before. By the age of 16, she had tried just about everything. Crack, LSD, cocaine -- all of which got her high, but none of which had her begging for more.

Every day she and her friends smoked pot during their free hour not far from the alternative school.

Then heroin swept her away.

The drug gave her a pain-free feeling of euphoria. It made her invincible, at least for a while, like nothing and no one could touch her. Like the black hole inside her soul was filled; a nameless, invisible and spiritual thirst quenched.

The heroin led to an addictive lifestyle, a fun and carefree plight. Later she would live with boyfriends she didn't love but used to feed her addiction.

It wasn't until one of her drug-dealing boyfriends beat her up that she found the Vision House.

It was April 31, 2005.

Katie had asked her boyfriend for more drugs. That's why she was in the relationship, after all. And when he didn't give them to her, she would get mad.

Sometimes she stole them. She thinks it was one of her thefts that led to the skirmish, but they were always fighting. This time the words were backed up by fists and feet.

He threw her around, she said. Kicked her in the back and the ribs. But not in the face. Because then people would know and start asking questions.

After the beating she didn't go to the hospital. No bones were broken. She just kept using drugs, trying to let the high take care of her pain. She wanted to get high, go to sleep and not wake up.

But when she did wake, the black hole had opened up again. Her boyfriend had passed out. She was scared, desperate and bruised. She stole his wallet and drugs, then called a friend. The friend took Katie to Katie's mother's house, and the heroin addict entered a St. Louis detox facility the next day.

From there, she was transferred to the Family Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau, where she completed yet another detox program. The FCC is one of the busiest places in Cape Girardeau. The facility on Sprigg Street can hold 16 women at a time in its residential treatment program and 16 in its transitional program, which is for stays of more than 30 days.

Generally, the women are released clean, but not cured, out in the street again, sent back to old ways and old friends. The FCC is often a pit stop, a place of familiar faces, similar stories and tragic tears. For Katie, it was one of several times in such a treatment facility, but it would be her first stay at the Vision House.

There she would live in the same apartment building with a woman named Melissa Mackey. Her old friend Melissa.

Coming tomorrow: Theresa gets a heart-breaking phone call.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: After 17 years of drug addiction and living in the streets, a Cape Girardeau County woman named Theresa Taylor was sent to prison. While incarcerated, she received treatment for her addiction and was clean for the first time in her adult life. She soon became a born-again Christian. A couple of years later, the judge who sentenced her became aware of how well Theresa's recovery was going and opened the door for Theresa to speak with youth and women at the Family Counseling Center. One day, while talking to a drug-addicted woman ready to leave the treatment facility, Theresa had a "vision." That vision was to provide a faith-based, long-term transitional living facility for homeless and addicted women. This series begins two years after the "vision" and on the opening day of the Vision House. It follows the progress of the facility as well as some of the women who tried the program. The reporter visited the Vision House more than 30 times over the past year, conducting scores of interviews. While some of the scenes were reported firsthand by the reporter, most of the story was re-created through interviews of the various sources mentioned in the story. When events could not be verified by other participating parties, those events have been attributed to the sources who gave the information.

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