Before, when Renee Gaskins looked in a mirror, she saw a broken drug addict on the road to nowhere.
In and out of jail so many times she lost count. At least five times in prison for crimes ranging from prostitution to grand theft. If she was out on probation, it was a sure bet she would violate it.
"I couldn't stay clean long enough," she says. "Basically, I just went to prison to get a rest, recuperate and regroup. I'd get out and start the cycle all over again."
She's a different person now, though, and doesn't dwell on the past. At 45, she has been clean and sober for 18 months. She's going to school, rebuilding relationships with her family and planning for a future. She looks in the mirror and likes what she sees.
"The world is a challenge. It's an adventure. It's an opportunity," says an enthusiastic Gaskins. "Before, I looked at it as a battlefield."
The turning point in Gaskins' life came during her last lockup. She says she could feel the life seeping out of her body. Change or die, she told herself. She says she put herself into God's hands and prayed for guidance.
It was Palmer's determination and doggedness that made the program possible; donations from supporters and churches in the community keep it going with a $60,000 annual budget.
"After meeting these women in jail, I always wondered if it was possible to put something together to help them into a better life," Palmer, 85, says. "The House of Hope is a result of all that wondering. To see them graduate into their new productive lives means more than words can say."
Since opening 10 years ago, 73 women have gone through the one-on-one program. They get help with all facets of growth, from spiritual development to establishing a career to mental-health counseling. About 65 percent have succeeded.
So far, Gaskins is one of those.
"It gave me direction and a sense of structure and discipline," she says. "It showed me that I could do something different, that I didn't have to live the way I was living."
Graduates of the program will be featured in the first Hillsborough House of Hope Fashion Show at noon Wednesday at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club. First they will be fussed over by hair stylists and makeup artists. Dillard's will provide trendy clothes for the women to model.
But before their appearance, a video will reveal their "before" pictures — their arrest photos. And that's when the audience will see the drastic changes in the women's lives.
"The women don't have a lot of self-esteem, if any, when they first get here," says program manager Linda Walker. "Taking part in an event like this is going to be a real boost for them. It's our way to show the community what can be accomplished."
Walker's story is an inspiration for the residents. A former supervisor in the graduate admissions program at the University of South Florida, Walker got hooked on crack cocaine and her life swirled into a tailspin.
She met Palmer while taking part in a court-ordered drug treatment program about 14 years ago. After Walker's success, Palmer knew she was the right fit to manage the newly opened House of Hope.
That hunch was right. Walker has the same enthusiasm for her work as she did when she took in the first group of residents. She knows not all will make it. They have to want it, she says. And they have to depend on another source as well.
"You put God first, then things begin to fall in order," she says. "There's no way we can do this without his guidance."
Walker will join the graduates on the catwalk. Her years of sobriety have paid off; she's married, reunited with two older children and the mother of two younger ones, and a recipient of several community leadership awards.
"I always tell the women, 'If I can do this, so can you.' This is the possible dream," she says.
That's the message Gaskins hopes to convey as she proudly struts her stuff at the fashion show. She has come a long way and knows she has a long way to go. But every step she takes these days is a step in the right direction. The sound of an audience's applause is not something she thought she would ever hear.
She has learned a great deal about herself from her time at Hillsborough House of Hope.
"That I am somebody," she says with a smile. "I am somebody. I was a nobody for so long."
Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613.
If you go
What: Hillsborough House of Hope Fundraiser Fashion Show and luncheon; master of ceremonies will be News Channel 8 anchor Gayle Sierens.
When: Noon Wednesday
Where: Tampa Yacht and Country Club, 5320 Interbay Blvd., Tampa
Admission: $45 per person or $360 for a table of eight; make reservations by Monday by emailing Amy at [email protected] or calling Paula at (813) 832-3228, then pay at the door.