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Michelle Bearden

Bearden: How the Chat Lady changed lives

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Published:   |   Updated: September 8, 2013 at 11:18 AM

Margaret Palmer, a refined lady from the deep South, was aghast when her Bible teacher made the suggestion.

“Margaret, we’d like you to go visit the jails and give those women some spiritual counseling,” the teacher said.

Now, because a lady doesn’t tell her age, Margaret didn’t want to point out that she was nearly 60 years old at the time. And asking her to walk through those jail doors? Why, that was like asking her to jump into a volcano. An erupting volcano.

But Margaret’s faith was stronger than her fear of going into unknown territory. After all, she had just spent five years in a group Bible study; it was time to take that knowledge out to those who needed it most. And one could not argue that women gone astray of the law could use a little structure and hope.

She read a passage in the New Testament that seemed to be sending a personal message to her: Matthew 25:32 spoke of the need to visit “Him” in the jails.

So she gathered herself up, all 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds of her, and made her first visit to Hillsborough County Jail, armed with nothing more than her biblical knowledge and the determination to save a few souls.

It was Valentine’s Day 1985.

“I swear to you, I was just nauseated when I walked through that first door, with my stomach all churning up,” she recalls. “I prayed to God and asked for a little help, and when I went through that second door, I felt just fine.”

As improbable as it may have seemed at the time, Margaret found a second home at the jail. She became one of the volunteer “Chat Ladies,” so named by a captain who wasn’t too thrilled about “do-gooders” coming in to visit the incarcerated. He wouldn’t even let them bring in their Bibles.

“Come hideaway and talk” is what it stood for. In other words, don’t be too obvious. If a jailed woman made a request for one of the Chat Ladies, and if she was eligible to have outside visitors, she would get the opportunity to unload on — and listen to — a stranger who had an interest in her well-being.

Margaret won over plenty of doubters with her tenacity and kindness. So much so that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office named her Volunteer of the Year in 2000.

But she still didn’t feel as though she was doing enough for the prostitutes, drug users, alcoholics, petty thieves and neglectful mothers she dealt with on a regular basis.

“I saw too many of the same girls coming in and out, in and out. It was a revolving door,” she says. “I asked them why, and they just told me, ‘Miss Margaret, we get out of here and there’s no place to go.’ So they basically end up back in the same place where they got in trouble.”

She had a vision for years that many agreed was needed, but few were willing to support: a transitional house and one-on-one program for newly released female offenders. And in Margaret’s dream world, it would have to be Christian based, simply because she so firmly believes that having a faith foundation is a necessary component in turning a wayward life around.

Finally, in 2001, with donations from her Hyde Park United Methodist congregation, other local churches and individuals from the community who shared her vision, the nonprofit Hillsborough House of Hope opened in Seminole Heights.

It wasn’t exactly what Margaret wanted — she wanted a 12-person facility and she was limited to three women — but it was real, it was tangible, and it was finally happening.

“I remember (then-sheriff) Cal Henderson telling me, ‘Margaret, one person at a time. Don’t try to do too much. This is all you can handle.’ I wanted to save the world, but he was more sensible about it,” she says with a chuckle.

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Last month, several of the women who were saved “one person at a time” came out to show their gratitude to “Miss Margaret.”

The afternoon party took place at Canterbury Tower in South Tampa, where Margaret, 87, resides with her husband and best friend of 66 years, Tom. (For the record, they all call him “Mr. Margaret.”)

With three hospitalizations this year — two from falls and one for emergency hernia surgery — she doesn’t get around much anymore. She and Tom don’t drive anymore, and Margaret has accepted that she must rely on a walker, which she affectionately calls “my buggy.”

“I’m in that period of life I call ‘quiet contentment,’ ” she says. “We’ve got two grandchildren and one great-grandchild, we’ve got a wonderful place to live and we’ve got each other.”

Her body has slowed down and her hearing isn’t what it used to be, but her mind is as sharp as ever. And she can see how much the program has blossomed since she planted those seeds for Hillsborough House of Hope 12 years ago.

The program still is led by Linda Walker, the director Margaret hand-picked when the board of directors bought the house. They met on one of Margaret’s trips to the jail, where Linda served several stints for substance abuse and alcohol arrests.

“I heard about this little old lady who would come in and pray with you, and I thought, ‘Why not? Nothing else is working for me.’ And that’s how I met Margaret, who turned out to be my angel in disguise,” Linda says.

She got the guidance she so needed to escape her addiction to crack cocaine and a dead-end life, much of which she credits to Margaret. Now Linda is married with four children and helps motivated women get their lives on the right track.

Since opening in 2001, some 65 women have gone through the House of Hope’s six-month program, which assists participants in all aspects of growth, from spiritual development to schooling to mental-health and substance-abuse counseling and job placement.

Of that number, about 55 percent are living independent, successful lives — which is considered a high rate for ex-offenders. She also understands why the retired sheriff was so adamant about keeping the program to a manageable size. Three women at a time allows more personal attention to each participant.

And now there’s even a “graduate” house across the street for three women who complete the program and need a home while they work and save money for their own place.

Juanita Curtis, 43, is one of those graduates living in the Pat Cook House, named for a late Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department drug counselor who was a big supporter of the program.

“She’s my angel, no question about it,” she says of Margaret. “I was one messed-up woman when I first met her, yet I felt her unconditional love from the very beginning.”

Juanita says her life has been a “roller coaster” — doing drugs, getting clean, relapsing, and then the cycle starting all over again. She’s been in jail numerous times and started at least a dozen rehabilitation programs, none of which she finished. Until she got to the House of Hope last November.

“It’s not an easy place,” she concedes. “It’s a commitment, and all that is expected of you can be overwhelming. But the love here is so powerful that you never feel alone.”

Juanita says she counts all the blessings in her life on a daily basis. She’s reunited with three of her four kids, has a good job with a supportive boss and will soon get her driver’s license back.

“Ten years ago, I was mentally, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt,” she declares. “Today, because of the House of Hope and God, I’m a woman of integrity. I will do the right thing, even when no one is looking. Because I finally have accountability.”

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On the day of the party in her honor, Margaret looked out at the House of Hope graduates, excitedly talking and catching up on each other’s lives, and felt so humbled.

“Just where would they all be, if they didn’t get this second chance?” she asks. “Most would be in jail or prison, or back on the streets, with no future to speak of. Now they’re leading productive lives. They’re happy. What more could I ask for?”

Like any nonprofit, the House of Hope exists only because people believe in it. Its $60,000 budget comes from individual supporters, grants, businesses and occasional fundraisers throughout the year. Margaret, no longer involved in the day-to-day operations, says she doesn’t fret about its future anymore.

“I don’t forget for one moment that we didn’t do this alone. God did it,” she says. “He has been the architect and builder of this entire program. Any time we had a need, we prayed for it. And he delivered. Boy, did he deliver.”

The Chat Lady smiles and just sits quietly for a spell. Sometimes, she can’t even find the words to express just how grateful she is.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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