If you ask Kari Galloway what prepared her to become the executive director of Friends of Guest House, she might say it was working in a cat litter factory, or working as a short-order cook, or scooping fish guts, or painting houses. Or she might say it was her grandfather’s predilection for weirdos.
“I mean weirdo in the best sense of the word,” she explains. “He was like a homing pigeon for them. There was a Basque gentleman who drove a donkey cart plastered with signs about the John Birch Society—he called himself Sunrise. And we’d ask, ‘Is his name really Sunrise?’ And my grandpa would say, ‘That’s what he told me his name was, so that’s what I want you to call him.’ We’d visit his camp and he’d talk about tin foil hats and UFOs and John Birchers taking over the world, and we were all, like, ‘What?’ But if we made fun of him we got in really big trouble.
“One day my grandpa picked up this guy alongside the road and brought him home for dinner, and it turned out that he didn’t have any teeth, so we were giggling at the way his mouth moved when he ate, until my grandma kicked us under the table and then reached for his plate and cut his food into little pieces.
“I learned compassion and kindness for people,” Kari says. “You know: the least of these. A lot of these characters who came in and out of our lives taught me how rich the human community can be if you listen to people who are different from you. Their perspective is important.”
Compassion for all kinds of people may be one of the most important qualities Kari brings to her work at Friends of Guest House, an Alexandria-based transitional housing program that helps women re-enter the community after incarceration. It’s certainly a quality that promotes trust, “and with these clients, trust is the most important thing,” Kari says.
“I didn’t set out to do this kind of work. As a kid I was always jealous of people who knew what they wanted to be—I want to be a teacher, or I want to be a doctor. All I knew was that I was interested in people’s stories. I like the way the human condition presents itself through stories about human beings.”
That interest led Kari to study English in college, but by then she had already been blessed with broad exposure to the human condition in her family life.
Kari grew up in Lewiston, Idaho in a house where the door was always open. “My brother and I were kind of free-range kids,” she says. “Free-range and free-love. My mother had a lot of hippie friends, and they were always hanging out at our house. I remember passing out political flyers at women’s liberation meetings when I was six years old.”
“I was kind of a shy kid,” Kari remembers, “but I got used to being around a lot of different kinds of people, and I watched them a lot.”
Kari’s parents got married young, had children immediately, and proceeded to develop radically different philosophies about parenting—and life. They divorced when Kari was seven. Her mother decamped for a more cosmopolitan lifestyle in Seattle, then internationally and Kari and her brother stayed with their father. “The door of the house was pretty much closed after that,” Kari says. “No more free-range or free-love.”
Kari’s father remarried, and her step-mother presided over a more conventional household, with a fixed schedule and appropriate table manners. Her brother chafed under that routine and soon escaped to a different kind of life on their grandmother’s farm. Kari adjusted, blended in, studied hard, avoided problems, and though she continued to live with her father, she, too, invested a lot of energy in her paternal grandmother—not the one whose husband enjoyed the company of eccentrics. This grandmother farmed essentially alone, and she didn’t drive, so Kari and her brother spent a lot of time helping her.
“My grandmother was very independent—as independent as you can be when you live on a farm and you don’t drive,” Kari says. “She only had an eighth-grade education, but she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. So I came to see her as a refuge.”
“There’s a rhythm to that farming lifestyle,” Kari says. “There’s always something to do, and you just keep doing it. That kind of rhythm had an influence on me—watching that for years and seeing how satisfying it was for people. At the time I thought it was ridiculous—I remember once my great aunt Mary asked me to help her hoe the garden, and I said I found that really boring—I’m a bit ashamed of saying that now, but it allowed her to teach me something I hold dear to this day, which is that the rhythm of that kind of work leaves your mind free for other things, and there’s real value in doing work that gives you peace of mind.”
That lesson served Kari well later, during her career as a house painter. “You know, if I didn’t get your room painted today, it wasn’t the end of the world. I tried to be timely and efficient, but the thing was to create something that was beautiful even as your mind was on other things. And that allowed me to develop really good relationships with the home-owner—you know, people follow you around and tell you their problems. Because I was able to bring peace of mind to their environment, people would come to me and share things.”
In addition to spending time with her grandmother, Kari developed a strong connection with the family of a high school friend. “When my family started drifting apart,” she explains, “I spent a lot of time with his family. They were not wealthy, but they were super rich in love and care for each other. They helped me see that the essence of life was just to be in relationship with one another. You could have nothing, but everything you had you gave to other people.”
During her college years, Kari spent a lot of time with her uncle Jerry, whose perspective and experience underscored the value of being in relationship with all different kinds of people. “He was really involved in politics and he had a lot of interesting friends—unusual people—so I learned a lot from listening to them.”
Kari explains that when her uncle came out as gay, her father tried to keep her and her brother away from him. “That was in the seventies,” she says, “when people were just starting to be able to talk about things. It felt really bad to be separated from him, because he was still our uncle and we loved him, but you know how you emulate your parents? Well after while I started to kind of get onboard with it. You know, like ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’”
That pendulum swung back in the opposite direction while she was visiting her mother, who had remarried a Malaysian man and converted to Islam. “That was a big step for me mentally,” she says, “for my mom to go from being a bra-burner to being a Muslim. But one day we were having a conversation about my uncle being gay, and my step-dad said, ‘But he’s still your uncle.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s wrong!’ And he said ‘Well you love him, right? You loved him before you knew this and you love him now, so what’s changed besides you?’
“That just switched me,” Kari says, snapping her fingers. “That moment defined me in terms of realizing that people are people, in spite of their differences.”
Seeing past the categories that tend to pigeonhole and separate people is crucial for working with vulnerable populations like the women at Friends of Guest House. The re-entry center was founded in 1974 by Betty McConkey, an Alexandria resident who came home after doing time in prison and found no place for a woman like herself to go. So she created a place. With financial help from the Old Presbyterian Meeting House and the City of Alexandria, McConkey rented a boarding house and opened its doors to other women who had just completed prison terms, and she set about helping them build new lives.
In 1981 the Old Presbyterian Meeting House sold its parsonage and donated the proceeds to Guest House so they could buy their building and move toward the kind of solvency that ownership affords, and for a while it looked like the service dearth McConkey had confronted was a relic of the past. But there were struggles. By 2001, mismanagement had spoiled the endeavor’s potential, and it was on the verge of collapse. Its plight was picked up by The Washington Post, and after a couple of Guest House alumni testified to the institution’s redemptive power in their lives, it was salvaged by a handful of community leaders, who renovated the physical plant and built a new board of directors. The facility reopened in 2004, with nine beds, under the management of a director with a background in social work, whose talents proved to be a mismatch for the institution’s needs.
At that time, Kari was at loose ends. She had come to Washington on a lark to celebrate an old friend’s birthday, and when the party was over, she was invited to hang around for a while.
“I met Geraldine Ferrero’s former chief of staff,” she explains. “She connected me with someone at the John Kerry campaign, and I worked on that for a while, but he lost the election. Then my money ran out, and I needed a job, so I answered an ad on Craigslist.”
She didn’t think they’d hire her because she had never run a non-profit organization. However, she had recently completed a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, and she had served as interim director of the Women’s Center at the University of Idaho, where a surprising conversation helped Kari see her own potential.
“That was the first time I had worked in a big bureaucratic system and enjoyed it,” Kari says. “We built a good, strong program that I was really proud of. We had this tiny little budget, and I had no staff, and we were housed in the basement of the men’s gym, and that just didn’t seem equitable to me. I was willing to do whatever it took to elevate the program, so I was always joining committees and trying different things to make it work better. And one day the president of the university said to me, ‘You’re the interim director here, so why are you trying to make all these changes? Why don’t you just keep the doors open on this program for the short term that you’re here?’
“And I said, ‘Because that’s boring, and we can do some great stuff here. We are doing great stuff.’
“And he said, ‘I know. I hear about you all the time. But I never would have guessed you were interim—I thought you’d been here for years!’
“He said that if he were still a corporate CEO, he would hire me.
“That was the first time anybody acknowledged how hard I work,” Kari says. “It was really exciting. And I thought, you know, I can do this. That experience helped me a lot in believing I could take this job.
“I really didn’t have the experience I needed to run this organization. In fact, when I started I quickly realized that I was in way over my head. I didn’t know the population—here I was a girl from Idaho, and these women were no joke, they had lived some lives that I could never imagine. But knowing I had that capacity was crucial.”
The mission of Friends of Guest House is “to provide women the structure, supervision, support, and assistance they need to transition successfully from incarceration—becoming self-sufficient and responsible members of the community.” When Kari took the reigns in 2005, the operating budget was just $179,000 and she was expected to staff the organization primarily with volunteers. With the same work ethic that characterized her tenure at the University of Idaho, Kari has increased the budget to $1.5 million. She oversees a professional staff of 32 full-time and part-time employees, and the number of beds in the facility has tripled. Friends of Guest House expects to serve 300 women in 2018, up from 190 in 2016.
Clients stay at Guest House for six months, during which time they undergo a rigorous program based on what Kari calls the five pillars of livability for formerly incarcerated women: health care, employment, education, housing, and reconnection with family and community. Most clients come from local jails or Virginia prisons, but queries come from all over the country. “We’re inundated with applications,” Kari says—roughly 350 per year for 52 available spots. That’s because the program works: the recidivism rate for Guest House graduates is seven times lower than the rate for women who try to re-integrate without the help of such a program, and it’s the only program of its kind in Northern Virginia.
Over all, Guest House has helped some 3,000 women rebuild their lives, and since many of them are mothers, that success extends to 4,000 children as well.
“I started working here because I needed a job,” Kari says, “and I’m still here thirteen years later because these women have changed me. They’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and they’re definitely the most resilient.”
She says one of her biggest challenges is shifting out of the operational mode into the strategic mode. “The staff calls me Tool Time Tim,” she says, “and the Board is after me all the time to quit doing the little things—they’re like ‘Stop snaking the toilet! We need you to raise money.’ But I’m the one who knows how everything works.
“I lead by example,” Kari says. “I don’t ask people to do things I wouldn’t do, but I’m kind of no-nonsense-y. We work for the women. I tell my staff, ‘You better know who you are, because if you don’t know when you get here, you will when you leave. The women will tell you.”
On-going programs at Friends of Guest House include aftercare, outreach, and a speakers bureau which attaches professionally trained Guest House graduates with audiences interested in social justice issues.
Kari’s advice to young people is: never turn down the opportunity to learn some new component of your job, even if it’s washing a toilet.
“And you should watch and listen,” she says. “The best skills come from watching and listening to other people. We have five generations on our staff, from women in their seventies all the way down to eighteen-year-olds, and that works because we all have a lot to teach, and we all have a lot to learn. I love having all the generations there—they bring such richness to the community workplace.”
Kari is married to Paul Stern, a Treasury Department actuary whom she discovered the same way she found Friends of Guest House: through Craigslist. “Paul is solid, thoughtful, and smart,” He is never jealous of my work, the long hours and demands. He’s just the greatest partner and incredibly supportive Kari says. “Not the guy with the lampshade on his head in the corner at the party.” He did, however, agree to marry her on Halloween, in costume.