By LINDA M. LINONIS
Lyn Whitmer, executive director of The Fifth Sparrow, puts faith in God that the ministry for women who have been incarcerated will not only take flight but soar.
The Fifth Sparrow is described in its literature as “a transitional home that will provide women leaving prison with the spiritual support, physical shelter and therapeutic care to enable them to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens.”
Whitmer’s journey to develop Fifth Sparrow began years ago when she became involved in a Bible study sponsored by Old North Church at Trumbull Correctional Institution. The study provided spiritual enrichment for female inmates and gave Whitmer a glimpse into reasons why they were imprisoned. TCI no longer houses female prisoners.
The former high school guidance counselor, now retired, also said a “Speak Out” program at Jackon Milton High School featured the testimony of three female prisoners. The stories told by the women prisoners riveted the students and staff and her, too. “No one wants to think of moms in prison,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer said she could relate to the stories of domestic violence and abuse that the women said were contributing factors to their situations. She said she had the same experience growing up but she realized education was her ticket out and she succeeded.
Whitmer said she was surprised at the high recidivism rate among the prisoners. “One woman was a great-grandmother and was in prison for the fifth time,” she recalled. “It was a way of life in her family.”
Whitmer said she was moved by her faith to do something concrete to help Christian women who had served their sentence and needed a place to help them transition from the captive life to a one of freedom as law-abiding citizens.
“Children learn what they live. The victim will become the villian,” she said. “These women need more than good intentions. They need a transformational home.”
The Fifth Sparrow takes its name from Scripture. The ministry’s logo features a sparrow on a door knob with the passage, “Not one sparrow will fall to to the ground apart from the will of your Father” from Matthew 10:29. Luke 12:6 reads, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”
Whitmer and April Cheney, development director, both said planning is key to The Fifth Sparrow’s mission. The women said the first step toward the transitional home has been accomplished. The ministry bought a 13-acre farm in North Jackson with a century-house on the property, which is going through the zoning process. The ministry hopes to use the house as its headquarters; Whitmer of Mineral Ridge and Cheney of Hubbard currently work out of their homes. It is a 501(c)3 organization, meaning contributions to it can be tax deductible.
Pending zoning approval, the next step is refurbishing the century house and building another structure to house five women. Whitmer said women will be asked to make a year-long commitment at The Fifth Sparrow so that they become strong in their faith; get General Education Diolomas, if needed; go through vocational training or other education; and participate in Care Mare, the equine therapy program.
Whitmer said The Fifth Sparrow offers “hope, help, healing and a new opportunity in Christ” to break the cycle of dysfunction.
The ministry, which will eventually have paid staff along with volunteers, has forged arrangements with educational and vocational sites, community organizations and business groups as a network of help and support for the women.