Prison ministry leads to ‘House of Hope’


House of Hope friends and sponsors gather for the Spring Fling. Photo courtesy of Bec Buxton Photography


When Margaret Palmer finished her Bible study program at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, she was instructed to go out and share what she had learned with others.

"At the end of six years, we were told don't go back to another study. Find a place to latch on to and go teach the Bible," said Palmer, who just turned 93.

As she surveyed a list of places where she could teach, one location stood out: the Hillsborough County Jail.

Margaret Palmer, seated,  is the founder of the Hillsborough House of Hope.  Linda Walker is the nonprofit’s program director.  Photo by Lenora Lake

That was 34 years ago.

But on Valentines' Day, 1985, Palmer answered the call to meet with women in need. She and two friends began speaking with female inmates who requested to see them. They discussed their lives, goals, religion and other topics.

"That was the time that truly changed my life,” Palmer said. "I met some of the sweetest women who had obviously made some mistakes."

It also laid the groundwork for what would become her legacy—the Hillsborough House of Hope. It assists women who battled substance abuse or were arrested for prostitution and other crimes.

The Christian-based rehabilitation program started in 2003. It expanded several years ago to include a second house for those who have finished the rehab program. Palmer, staff and volunteers are working to secure another facility where women who complete the program can reunite with their children.

"The girls who have graduated and gone on to pick up their lives, they just want to be reunited with their children," Palmer said.

Many of them report having problems finding places that would rent to them.

The idea for the house began after visiting the women. She learned many had nowhere suitable to go after serving their time, and some returned to drugs, alcohol, petty theft and other crimes. She wanted a home for them.

A conversation with an inmate made her act.

"One woman said she would be released the next day but would soon return,” Palmer said. “She said, 'My parents will put me back out of the streets.'"

Palmer talked to her husband, Tom, and members of his prayer group.

"I called each one and explained what I would like them to do. And everyone said yes,” Palmer said.

That prayer group became her first board of directors.

Linda Chatters Walker was among the inmates with whom Palmer began chatting more than 20 years ago.

Walker, now the Hillsborough House of Hope program director, has been clean and sober for almost 20 years. She recalled telling Palmer they would work together some day.

Reading Tony Dungy's book during the House of Hope spring fling. Photo courtesy of Bec Buxton Photography

Walker, 54, oversees the operation of the non-profit, which relies on donations of money, clothing, food and other items. Fundraisers include fashion shows, luncheons and a Christmas concert. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy and his wife, Lauren, are supporters.

The house can accommodate three residents and a house manager. The residents are responsible for their cooking and laundry and for assisting with house cleaning. They must follow house rules, including a curfew and obtaining a sponsor within two weeks of moving in.

They stay for six months and some move across the street to the transitional housing for another six months. That home is the Pat Cook House, named for a substance abuse counselor at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Walker said the program has a 60 percent success rate.

She said there is a great need for a facility to accommodate children.

"The last three graduates were able to reunite with their children, but then they lost their parental rights because they couldn't find housing with their backgrounds," Walker said.

They hope to find an existing apartment building to buy and start with two families. The residents must have jobs and pay rent.

"We would like to find a place where we could build on more apartments," Walker said. "We also would like to build a playground and a parenting resource center as we want to give our families all the information we can to help them succeed."

Palmer said the non-profit has funding commitments through community investors and others to secure the property when they find the right place.

"Every need we have ever had,” Walker said, “God has fulfilled."

—Lenora Lake is a freelance writer in Tampa.


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