Just when I was thinking that no one could sound less like a convicted murderer than Jenee Williams, the rest of the cast took a break and Onia Royster came over to talk. Royster is a 46-year-old mother of three, and grandmother of six, she told me. A Harriet's House alum, she now works for Passage Home as a case manager; her 10 clients are a mix of ex-offenders in the Harriet's House program and others who are formerly homeless and are enrolled in a different program called Matthew House.
I couldn't imagine this smart, generous-seeming woman in prison, let alone in prison for murder. But it happened, she said, because while she was with a guy and getting high in his car, he drew a gun and killed another guy—and in North Carolina, that's felony murder. She pleaded guilty to a second-degree murder charge and went to NCCIW, the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women.
While there, Royster got clean, began a degree program at Shaw University, and was such a model prisoner that when she was released she quickly found work as a resident manager, part-time, in a different transitional housing program.
Then one night the chaplain at NCCIW called to ask that she counsel a young woman about to be released from prison who was insistent that she could skip the whole transition thing, didn't need a GED, and would do fine working for $7 an hour. Tell her, the chaplain asked Royster, how hard it to make it even when you're earning a lot more than that—which, at the time, Royster was.
So Royster met with the woman, and as they talked, Royster realized that she herself wasn't doing what she needed to do to get her own life on track. Yes, she had a roof over her head, and a decent job. But Royster wanted to be reunited with her three daughters, then living in Oxford, and she wasn't earning enough to make that happen. "I needed to have my children here."
Out of that tearful realization, Royster left her job and entered the Harriet's House program, where she was helped over a two-year period to finish her college degree, save the money she earned working part-time, and bring her family back together in Raleigh.
Which she did, and today they are a family, Royster says, adding with a laugh, "But thank God, my daughters are all on their own now."
The point, Royster says, and she repeats it for emphasis, "is that Harriet's House is not a cookie-cutter program" with a mold you have to fit in. It is, instead, a program that, after screening potential clients, carefully assesses what each client needs—more education, help with their children, help for their children—and puts in within her reach.
It does so in partnership with Raleigh churches and a network of Harriet's House and Matthew House alumnae called WOO, short for Women Overcoming Obstacles. Collectively, of course, these women have been through it all, from substance abuse to living on the streets to living in prison and surviving and coming back from it.
These WOO members are, Royster says, each other's babysitters, drivers, job counselors, furniture movers—whatever's needed. "They understand that, in order for them to survive, they need the others to survive too. And that's a good thing that they are learning, that to be blessed is not to hold those blessings in—God blesses us so we can be a blessing to others, and it just keeps rippling down."
And her job, as case manager? It's the same, plus being a quiet voice of advice and hope, 24/7. She talks about a couple of her clients, young women with children who were abused by men but have no experience being on their own. They're learning, among others things, how to maintain a schedule, and how to manage a home with more than one room.
Little things and big ones, Royster says, that she can help them to navigate.
"It's just amazing to know that, with all the bad that I was involved with, goodness is coming out of it," Royster says quietly of herself.
Part of the good is that she can talk about being in terrible trouble and still having hope for a better day, she says. Not only can she talk about, she believes that she must, that it's something God is calling her to do.
One thing she's learned about nonprofits, Royster confides. There's so much work to do, and not enough money to do it. Harriet's House turns away women who could benefit from its program, she says, because when they're released, all the available places—literally, places to live—are taken.
Then, too, she says, there are women in prison who, when they're released, won't make it because their attitude is wrong. And Harriet's House doesn't succeed with everyone. But it does have an 85 percent success rate—just 15 percent of its clients return to prison within three years of their release, less than half the usual rate of recidivism.
She wouldn't have made it, Royster says. If she hadn't come to Harriet's House, she'd probably have a roof over her head, but her family would be scattered and her life would be unhappy—or maybe worse.
"I don't even like to think what would've happened to me if that [Harriet's House] program wasn't there. I don't like to think about the possibilities of what would've happened to me and my family. I'll just say, it was a life-changing experience for me. And I just have so much gratitude towards Passage Home."