By Kathryn Doorey

In Live Oak, a small white house with turquoise trim and a swinging wooden gate rests nestled between trees. The otherwise nondescript dwelling is home to Gemma graduates, a few selected women who have recently been released from prison. With the help of the Gemma program, they have chosen a better path for themselves.

Gemma, meaning “a bud ready to grow independently,” is a nonprofit program of the Santa Cruz Community Action board developed to help imprisoned women reform their lives after release. With the program’s nine-week “day course,” women in jail are offered an array of classes that rehabilitate them physically and mentally, prepare them for the work force, and reform their lives to foster a smooth transition away from imprisonment. Some classes include Parenting and Healthy Relationships, Credit Repair and Money Management, Self-Esteem and Empowerment, and Job Readiness and Career Planning.

“We started the day program in February 2007 and held our first graduation ceremony in May,” said Cassandra Byard, program coordinator.

On Nov. 19, Gemma hosted its second graduation ceremony at the UC Santa Cruz Inn and Conference Center. The event honored six women who graduated from Gemma’s day program.

“This is our second ceremony and so far we have had 10 graduates altogether, which is really wonderful,” Byrad said. “[The graduation] was very beautiful. We had over 75 people, with keynote speakers from the probation and sheriff’s department. Each graduate gave a speech, one presented a poem. She was crying so much she couldn’t really get it out, so I kind of took over.”

Gemma is designed to support women in jail who are considered likely to re-offend upon release, and have virtually no access to resources that can get their lives back on track. According to the organization’s website, nearly three out of every four women who are released from jail are re-arrested. Gemma was started by two women from the Blaine Street Jail in 2003, with the goal to combat this statistic.

Co-director Susan Greene said that the graduates of the Gemma day program feel it has changed their lives.

“Most of [the women] have been in jail numerous times and struggle with addiction,” Greene said. “They have often been victims of domestic and physical abuse … and resort to illegal substances to ease their pain. For them to have an opportunity to focus on their past and plan on their future, and develop a renewed sense of hope, they report that it’s the best thing to ever happen to them.”

To be eligible for the day program, the Gemma website states that the Gemma staff will screen, interview and enroll six to eight women at a time, giving priority to those who will be homeless upon their release from jail.

Mardi Wormhoudt, former county supervisor and city council member, said, “The Gemma house helps them turn their lives around. [Living in the house] is a long-term commitment of 12 to 18 months that focuses on helping them.”

Only graduates of the day program are eligible to live in the Gemma house, a transitional residence. The home is a major opportunity for jailed women who will leave jail homeless.

“How do they get a job without a safe place to live, and how can they find a safe place to live without a job?” Greene asked. “The Gemma home gives them a chance to establish some stability.” Greene’s hope is that the home will provide a solid base.

“The Gemma program gives them the opportunity to forget that they are in jail and think about the changes in their lives that they want to make,” Greene said.

_Gemma has proudly been selected by Good Times as a Community Holiday Funds Recipient. All donations through the end of the year will be matched by the David & Lucille Packard Foundation. Contributions can be sent to: Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, 2425 Porter Street Suite 17, Soquel, CA 95073 Memo: GEMMA Or online at