Stephen's Place - A home, not just a halfway house
The mission statement tells most of the story: "Stephen's Place believes that men coming out of prison should have a safe, spiritual environment in order to address early recovery from substance abuse, as well as develop personal life skills. Therefore, Stephen's Place provides a halfway house to help these men transition back into the community as productive citizens."
What the statement doesn't explain is just how much of a home Stephen's Place is for its residents, and the role it plays in inspiring hope, empowerment and self-esteem - important factors in keeping offenders from returning to drug use and prison. Since the halfway house opened 20 years ago in South Bethlehem, it has been home to more than 200 men, with an impressive success rate of 85 percent.
The founder and heart of Stephen's Place is Sister Viginia Longcope, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, an order dedicated to healing, teaching and caring. Her story begins with a trip to visit family in North Carolina, where a nephew was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to a long term in prison.
"I knew I couldn't do anything for him, but I wanted to help other young people in trouble," she remembers.
After returning to her job as a fifth grade teacher in Whitehall, Sister Longcope began helping by volunteering at the Lehigh County Prison. When the person in charge of the prison volunteers suggested that the nun should work full time as a parole office, she decided instead to study to be a prison chaplain. Classes were in a maximum security prison in South Carolina, where she interned in the drug and alcohol unit.
One of her teachers told her if she really wanted to make an impact, she should get a master's degree in social work.
Two years of study and another internship in a prison led to a job at a South Carolina work release center run by the department of corrections. That job lasted three and a half years.
'Start a house'
While she was working at the center, a young man was about to released from prison. He had a job, but no place to live. Sister Longcope found him an apartment.
\Later he encouraged her to "start a house so you can help more people like me." His name was Stephen.
"I had already been thinking about that [opening a halfway house]," Sister Longcope recalls, "but Stephen was the catalyst that got me going. I could see the revolving door, and I wanted to do something to stop the cycle."
It would be some time, though, before Stephen's Place became a reality, and a lot of miles away.
Return to Valley
In 1992, Sister returned to the Lehigh Valley, in part to be closer to her religious order in Reading, and also to take advantage of what she felt would be a much more supportive community. She worked as a contract counselor while she wrote grants and looked for a house. Finally, at the end of 1993, she found what she believed was the perfect place.
"It had two things that made me sure it was right - a crucifix in the living room, and embedded in an archway in the kitchen was an emblem of the Sacred heart."
Buying a house
It would take $85,000 to buy the house and a co-signer for the loan. The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart decided to loan the money instead. Grants paid off half of the amount in a few years, and in honor of its Jubilee year in 2000, the order forgave the balance.
Today, Stephen's Place houses five men, who are required to help with chores, attend two meetings together each week and keep a 10 p.m. curfew. They plant landscaping, grow vegetables, clean rooms and help with cooking. The lessons Sister Longcope says she wants the men to learn are responsibility and accountability.
"Addicts are very selfish people, so what I require, especially in the first 90 days" Sister says, "is make them tell me ahead of time what their plans are and what they are doing. Any kind of relationship requires you to learn how to live with and plan to consider others."
In return, residents are given help getting jobs, and when they are ready to leave, Stephen's Place subsidizes their rent. Help with family intervention is also provided.
A success story
One of the home's many success stories, and one that Sister Longcope likes to talk about, involves a young man who two years ago stayed at Stephen's Place for 13 months. He enrolled at a local community college and was just accepted as one of 30 students to be enrolled in a highly competitive health care degree program that begins in September. These days, program costs are paid from grants, gifts from foundations and local businesses, and donations from individuals. Enough was raised in 2001 to expand and renovate the facility, but there is one growing concern for which more money is being raised. Sister Longcope is 75 years old, and she is anxious to establish a fund sufficient to pay a director when she is no longer able to run the program.
June 7 event
To that end, a benefit dinner and auction is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 7, at the Se-wy-co Banquet Hall at 3621 Old Philadelphia Pike in Bethlehem. Tickets may be purchased for $50 each by calling Stephen's Place at 610-861-7677.