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Meet Lindsey Coulter of The Empowerment Program

The mission of The Empowerment Program is to provide education, employment assistance, health, housing referrals, and support services for women who are in disadvantaged positions due to incarceration, poverty, homelessness, HIV/AIDS infection and/or involvement in the criminal justice system.  The goal is to decrease rates of recidivism by providing case management, support services, basic skills education, housing and resource coordination that can offer alternatives to habits and choices that may lead to criminal behaviors.

I recently asked Lindsey Coulter (Development Assistant and Volunteer Coordinator with The Empowerment Program) a few questions about their organization...

Q:  Who are your typical clients?

Lindsey:  The Empowerment Program serves homeless women, women living in poverty, sex workers, women involved in the criminal justice system, women living with HIV/AIDS and women struggling with mental illness.  Many are also at high risk for HIV infection and/or are survivors of abusive relationships, and approximately 90% currently use or have significant histories of drug/alcohol use.  Eighty percent of participants have dependent children – most of whom are in foster care or living with a guardian.  The majority are unemployed upon attending orientation and have histories of working in low-paying, low-skilled positions.  Extensive criminal records and untreated trauma and mental illness are also common among participants and pose additional barriers to finding and maintaining employment.

The demographic break down of The Empowerment Program is roughly 40% African American/Black, 30% Caucasian/White, 25% Latina/Hispanic and 5% American Indian/Native American.  Women of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations and gender identities are welcome.  As a result, Empowerment provides services to a very diverse group of women, each with a specific set of needs and challenges.  On average, services are provided to 400+ women per week through both on-site and outreach activities to women in Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas, Adams, and Jefferson Counties.

Q: How does a woman usually find EP?  What happens when they first come for help?

Lindsey:  The majority of participants are required to attend by court order or parole or probation requirement, however many come freely after hearing about Empowerment through friends, family or other social service agencies.  Upon arriving they must first attend an orientation to acquaint them with the organization and all the services we offer.  They then take part in a brief one to one intake session in which case managers gather information on drug/alcohol use, employment status, housing status, mental health status, support systems (or lack thereof), and assess the participant's needs and specific challenges/barriers to health and self-sufficiency.  After this orientation and one-to-one session, they are free to begin attending classes and receiving case management services.

Q:  Where are you located?

Lindsey:  The Empowerment Program provides comprehensive services at its main office at 1600 York. In response to increased demand, Empowerment opened a second, smaller office at 1733 York in early 2009 to provide employment services for offenders leaving prison and jail.

Q:  You offer a lot of programs (see below) - which tend to be most popular with the women?

Lindsey:  Acupuncture, methadone maintenance, employment services, drug/alcohol counseling and one-to-one mental health therapy seem to be the most popular.

Q: And you offer some men's services as well?

Lindsey: Yes, our men's programming is specific to a coed, grassroots program for injection drug users and an employment and counseling program for male offenders who have recently been released from jail/prison and are in need of employment, employment skills or specific training.

Q: What other programs would you like to offer if you had the resources?

Lindsey:  Increased on-site job skills training would be helpful, and we are currently trying to institute a financial budgeting program for women who are employed or working for the first time.  In addition, we've tried to integrate massage therapy to address body and physical contact issues for women who have been abused, but sadly were not funded for this specific project.  The Flossy Workshop would also be revived were the proper funds available.

Q: Would you explain the background & purpose of the Harm Reduction program?

Lindsey:  Harm Reduction, by definition, is a perspective and a set of practical strategies to reduce the negative consequences of drug use, incorporating a spectrum of strategies from safer use to abstinence.  Empowerment applies these principles to all areas of service, not just substance abuse. Harm Reduction was developed in the Netherlands and UK, but quickly spread to urban areas such as New York City and the Bay area.

It promotes providing innovative services, using multi-disciplinary approaches to treatment, reaching out to users and engaging them, and recognizes that people have the right and the ability to set their own goals in terms of abstinence.  Many groups also view Harm Reduction as a sort of social justice movement, and it can also be applied to HIV/AIDS, HepC reduction, etc. Harm Reduction respects the dignity and autonomy of the individual, and their right to self-determination in terms of their treatment plan and goals.  The goal is always to decrease drug use and help change dangerous or risky behaviors, with the ultimate goal of total abstinence from dangerous substances.  User involvement is key, and any positive changes in drug use or risky behaviors are commended.

Q: What is one of the best things about working at EP?

Lindsey:  One of the best things is that you're helping create a space for people to heal themselves, and I take great pride in that.  It's really an honor to share such an intense and personal experience with people, and to be trusted with their histories and experiences.  You're constantly reminded how much potential and capacity people have to change and become better.  The staff is also stellar and are genuinely committed to helping people reach their individual goals in a way that is respectful of that person's unique history and challenges.  I really appreciate the fact that we don't set people's goals for them, but rather we just provide an environment in which it's possible to realize the goals they have for themselves.  To me that's social justice in action.

Q:  What is one of the harder things about working at Empowerment?

Lindsey:  One of the hardest is that some participants tend to become really comfortable in the cycle of Empowerment groups and classes, and become almost institutionalized here.  That's really frustrating to me, especially when they begin to rely too heavily on Empowerment even when it becomes fully possible for them to stand on their own feet.  I feel like this prevents other women from reaching the same place as these women are using up some valuable resources.  It's very difficult to tell a participant her time at Empowerment should maybe be up, because it's not our policy to ever deny services.  I just wish there were more established routes for safe, healthy transitions once a woman has reached the point of self-sufficiency.

Q: What kind of volunteer opportunities are you most in need of at Empowerment?

Lindsey:  GED tutors, especially those with experience in math/algebra, are always welcome.  We also need mentors for women being released from Denver County Jail over the coming months.  These mentors would commit to a 10 month program, during which they would work to build a mutually-beneficial relationship with a woman as she re-acclimates to the Denver metro community.  This opportunity would be great for a woman who is over 25 years of age, has stable employment, has been clean for at least 4 years, has some knowledge of the criminal justice/corrections system, and is comfortable working with women of all backgrounds.  We are looking for around 12 mentors.

And here is a list of the programs available at The Empowerment Program:

Health Services: Drug and Alcohol Treatment -Empowerment is a licensed drug and alcohol treatment program in Colorado that provides intensive outpatient treatment for women and women offenders for no fee.  Both one-to one counseling and group treatment are provided.  Pre-treatment, treatment and aftercare services are provided.  Full body acupuncture is a critical component of treatment.

Methadone Maintenance: In 2006, Empowerment organized a collaboration of 4 methadone clinics and 3 community based outreach groups to develop the “HELP Collaborative” which provided financial support for individuals on methadone maintenance programs who were in danger of relapse due to financial needs. I n the first year of operation, they provided $7,000.00 to 26 different men and women who were at risk for using heroin.  None relapsed.  Today, the Project distributes about $2,000 monthly to injectors who want to enter or maintain methadone treatment.

The Chrysalis Drug Court Diversion Project: This project provides drug treatment and diversion services for women convicted of prostitution who also are drug addicted.  The majority of those referred are homeless single women who need intensive case management services that will connect them to shelter, food, health services and other services vital to their personal safety and successful completion of drug treatment.  This is a public/private partnership with the Denver Office of Drug Strategy, Denver County Courts and the Denver City Attorney’s Office.

Mental Health Education: (Holistic Approach to Better Mental Health), Trauma Narrative and Anger Management/Emotional Awareness are three of six groups offered.

Women’s AIDS Project: Funded through the Part A of the Ryan White Care Act, services include case management, transportation, housing, substance abuse treatment, counseling and emergency assistance is provided to 160 women and their families living with HIV/AIDS.  Prevention services include: street and community outreach and a variety of evidence-based programs targeting high risk women.

Housing Services: The Empowerment Program is an experienced housing manager and services provider.  The program developed and now owns 73 low-income housing units in four properties and manages three of those properties.  The Program administers Shelter Plus Care rental assistance for 60 women who have been involved in the criminal justice system and are living with mental illness, HIV/AIDS or other disabilities.

Education Services: GED preparation, Life Skills, parenting skills classes, assistance with enrollment into post-secondary education and training opportunities through Community College of Denver and other post-secondary institutions and non-traditional training programs such as construction, plumbing and electric apprenticeships.

Employment Services: provided through weekly job readiness classes, assistance with job search and follow-up post-placement support and services.  Placement activities are focused on employers who are willing to employ felons and former prisoners.  The Denver Metro Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, a U.S. Department of Labor funded collaborative, is in its fourth year of operation.  Each grant funded service in 2009 has its own specific outcomes: fulltime employment for 70% of offenders; completion of drug treatment for 80% of enrollees; stable housing for a year for 80% of all housing residents; HIV rapid testing for 80% of all participants; attainment of GED certificates for 20 women annually.

Visit The Empowerment Program to learn more.

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