Photos & Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Memorable moments were recounted, tears were shed and there were enough hugs for everyone as dozens of women came together for a reunion unlike any other.
The women are all former offenders who served the end of their sentences at Casa Aurora, a Female Rehabilitative Community Correctional Center (FRCCC) in Bakersfield.
FRCCC, a program of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is a small, 75-bed, community-based facility jointly operated by CDCR and Mental Health Services (MHS), Inc.
At Casa Aurora, women with 36 months or less to serve in custody participate in rehabilitative programming focused on preparing them for successful returns to their communities.
And there have been many successes. At the reunion, held during Casa Aurora’s fifth year of existence, women spoke of their experiences finding jobs, staying clean and sober and reuniting with their families.
“I couldn’t be the woman I am today if I hadn’t spent the time I spent at Casa Aurora,” said Sarah Hallam, now a full-time student. “As much as I’m thankful for every staff member who worked with me, I’m thankful for the ability to learn that I could do it on my own, and that I was worth it.”
While there are correctional officers and security gates, and the women do not leave the premises, Casa Aurora feels more like a home than anything else.
The walls are decorated with peaceful artwork created by the residents, and a bright, open visiting room creates an inviting space for families to spend time together. The day before the reunion, a group of women baked colorful cupcakes for the alumnae.
“This place is great,” one resident said. “It’s great for us. They help us change our ways – change for the better.”
Programming is centered on strength-based, trauma-informed treatment, including substance abuse education, parenting skills training, education services/GED preparation, job readiness services and domestic violence counseling.
Casa Aurora can house up to 84 women, enabling both custody and counseling staff to interact with women on a deeper level.
“I think it’s important that we treat them with respect, and that they feel they are respected,” said Relief Sergeant Collis Cason.
In addition to thanking Casa Aurora staff, each woman who spoke at the reunion thanked fellow residents for helping her along the road to recovery. This is the third time alumnae have gathered in Bakersfield for this event.
“I want to thank you and the entire MHS and CDCR staff for all that you did to assist me in arriving at the place I am today,” said Maria Blair, an alumnae who is now an administrative assistant and a resident manager in a sober-living home. “I will be forever grateful for the kindness, trust education and humanity that you and the staff offered me.”
Kim Bond, President of MHS, said seeing the successful women at the reunion reminded her of the early days of Casa Aurora, and how much the program has grown and developed over the last five years.
“Getting to be there the very first day, when the first woman came into Casa Aurora, it truly was a dream come true,” she remembered. “That women were going to be served in a way that women deserve to be served – with all of our needs met, reuniting with your families and giving us real hope that we can change.”
Employment Development Counselor Angela Brown, who organized the reunion, encouraged the alumnae to not only continue helping themselves, but also to help other women going through struggles.
“We’ve always got to keep reaching our hand down and helping someone,” she said. “If you see someone going the wrong way, you’re obligated to help that person. You’re obligated to talk to them … because you’re part of Casa Aurora. And what we do is we keep reaching out and we keep helping, and we keep pushing people up.”