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HomeNewsLocal NewsFinding Self-Worth After Prison: One Woman's Nonprofit Helps Others Rebuild

Finding Self-Worth After Prison: One Woman’s Nonprofit Helps Others Rebuild

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By John McCallum | FāVS News

One thing Gaye Hallman has always had in her up and down life is writing — specifically poetry.

Beginning as a little girl growing up in Chicago, Hallman said she has always been a writer. A quiet person, she often turned to poetry to express her inner thoughts and imagination for what things could look like in life, providing a sense of self during difficult times — including six years of incarceration in Georgia corrections facilities.

“Writing was my friend,” Hallman said. “I was always comfortable with me. Even when I was incarcerated, it helped me because I needed to enjoy my own company.”

Hallman’s poetry helped her recover from her trials, begin a new life and realize a dream she has had since 1996 to help women who have endured similar challenges to their self-esteem and life dreams. Her dream came to fruition in 2020 when she found the Spokane nonprofit organization, “A Woman’s Worth.”

Realizing the dream of A Woman’s Worth

A 501(c)(3) organization, A Woman’s Worth’s mission is to “empower women to take back their lives, and to see as this transformation brings hope to their creativity.”

“We are a team of women, empowering women to rebuild their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth by expressing their passion through ARTS!” Hallman writes in a letter to prospective sponsors. “In addition to women in the community, we are reaching out to women re-entering society from incarceration.”

A Woman’s Worth was given the opportunity to achieve a long-time dream of Hallman’s to help women leaving incarceration when they secured a contract to provide services at the Eleanor Chase House Reentry Center on Spokane’s lower South Hill. Run by the state Department of Corrections, Eleanor Chase House is a reentry facility housing only females that provides higher education and GED programs, trades preparation courses, mental health services and substance abuse treatment.

“That’s our goal, our mission, to revitalize what dream or goal that is shut up inside you,” Hallman said in a March 14 interview about the women she works with. “We’re telling them ‘your life is not over.’”

Incarceration and redemption

Hallman has traveled a similar road many of the women of Eleanor Chase are on. From Chicago she moved with family to Hawaii where she met a serviceman who eventually became her husband.

From there it was to Georgia — which is where her troubles began. Hallman said she got involved in drugs, mainly cocaine, which led to incarceration at just about every facility imaginable from 1991 – 1996: jail, prison, halfway house and recovery centers.

Hallman continued to write poems while in lock-up, for herself but also for other women in the cells around her. It was while she was in a facility like Eleanor Chase that Hallman found a personal champion in the form of a woman named Clementine Slack.

Drug use, and other habits such as heavy smoking, had taken a toll on Hallman physically, mentally and emotionally. Slack found worth in her and stuck by her the entire six years of her ordeal, vouching for her with courts, getting her to appointments and even other corrections facilities such as a women’s boot camp.

“It was amazing, it was mind blowing,” Hallman said. “It really touched my heart. One day I said, ‘God, if you get me through, this is what I want to do.”

Hallman did get through, and after divorce and release from incarceration, eventually moved to Spokane in 1997, working first for her brother’s janitorial service company. She also volunteered at Eleanor Chase, and began attending church at Jesus is the Answer City Church — a pivotal decision on her path to A Woman’s Worth.

Opening her home and finding gifts at Jesus is the Answer

At Jesus is the Answer, Hallman began the task of learning to speak again. Drugs and smoking had physically damaged her, and in order to converse, she said she had to learn to speak concisely and quickly to avoid creating head and chest pain.

She began attending Spokane Community College in 2004, working on an AA degree in business. All this time, she was writing her poetry, even trying presentations at a few open mic events, and becoming more involved at Jesus is the Answer where she moved up in leadership in the church’s Women’s Department, leading focus groups.

Hallman said one night in 2009, God came to her in a dream and showed her how to work with people at her church. She approached her pastor, Shon Davis, and told him about the dream

“Pastor Shon was helping me build back my self-esteem, and he said I should go back to the Lord and ask Him for more directions,” Hallman said.

She did, and soon held an “Open House” where she literally opened her home to women from the church or community for a day from 10 a.m. until late in the evening. The open houses became an annual gathering for 10 years.

Not long after, Hallman got the idea to do an evening where women in the church could showcase their talents not just with poetry but also music and other arts. Again, she approached Davis who provided encouragement and logistical assistance to what would eventually become the popular, annual “Stir Up the Gifts” evening.

Hallman continued her college education. She graduated from Spokane Falls Community College in 2017 with a graphic design degree and soon began working at the YMCA.

Her graphic design degree gave her confidence and inspiration, and she used it to write, design, publish and distribute her first book of poems. And in 2020 while sitting in her living room, the phrase “A Woman’s Worth” came to her, and together with a verse from the Bible (Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”) inspired her to write the poem “A Woman’s Worth.”

Finding dreams and passions

Hallman said her time before and during incarceration led to her developing low self-esteem, that she was not worthy of a happy life.

“Why would somebody give me a chance?” she asked. “That stops a lot of people.”

But thinking about all those who had helped her along the way, from the woman in Georgia who stood by her to a pastor that helped her realize her dreams, Hallman knew what the phrase A Woman’s Worth meant.

She began the organization, reconnecting with people in business she had met 15 – 20 years ago but had lost touch with while she spent time “getting me together.” She also capitalized on her volunteer experience at Eleanor Chase, and was soon providing life skills and training to the women there.

A Woman’s Worth program begins by addressing each person by their names. Each woman is given a “welcome kit” containing the “A Woman’s Worth” poem, a custom T-shirt, goal-setting journal and a poetry book, all written and designed by Hallman.

There is also a pre-assessment and questionnaire to help work with each person individually, with the latter asking three questions: What did you want to be when you grew up, what is your dream now that you are grown, and if you had no money worries, what would you want to do?

Many women don’t know the answer to some of those questions. Using a vision board during workshops, along with the journals, Hallman and other counselors help women identify their dreams and passions.

One woman told Hallman she didn’t know what she wanted to do, but enjoyed decorating her mother’s yard whenever she came to visit. She said “it gave her peace.”

“The first thing that came to me was landscaping,” Hallman said.

She encouraged the woman to take photos of her decorating, something that would enhance her portfolio when she began looking for work in the field.

Growing A Woman’s Worth

A Woman’s Worth provides safe spaces for women in the program to release their concerns about moving forward, encouraging participation at group gatherings as well as the workshops. There are activities providing skills development, along with one-on-one counseling to dive further into their concerns and dreams.

Besides Eleanor Chase, Hallman said they have also expanded to offer their services to women at Spokane’s Revive Center for Returning Citizens.

A Woman’s Worth has four individuals — including Hallman — working in an office suite in a small office park on East Queen Avenue just north of the Northtown Mall Shopping Center. Hallman said they also have the services of a Seattle-area advisor to the organization’s board of directors, and another employee providing services in Anchorage, Alaska — Hallman’s sister.

“It’s really been an amazing journey,” she said. “I’m very passionate about what I do now. I wake up every morning and figure out how to make somebody’s day better.”

A Woman’s Worth is hosting its second annual gala at Gonzaga University’s Hemmingson Ballroom on April 26 from 6 – 8:30 p.m. Call 509-385-7074 for more details.

John McCallum
John McCallum
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist covering everything from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church and has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles. He has made six mission trips to Guatemala as a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Chili, road trips — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.

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