Caring chaplain 'mothers' women at recovery home

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. – Elena Hernandez is acquainted with the grief and consequences of addictions, but God transformed her pain into a powerful, redemptive ministry.

Chaplain Hernandez, a yard pastor and program coordinator for the Spanish Ministry at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, is also the director of Casa de Recuperacion Para Mujeres (Women's Recovery Home) in San Ysidro, which is part of the Alcance Victoria San Ysidro (Victory Outreach) ministry.

The home is a place of hope and restoration for women who struggle with alcohol and drugs. Many women are sent to the home by probation officers. Hernandez instructs and nurtures these women, whose hearts and bodies are scarred by harmful choices. By the time the women leave—after a nine-month commitment—their lives are saturated with the Word of God.

The women begin most days with a  devotional and then have the option of attending a local adult school for a few hours. Their afternoons include a two-hour Bible study and chores, followed by dinner and an evening church service. The biblical focus is designed to fill their minds with positive, scriptural truth.

There are strict rules, but Hernandez, 60, insists she is "not a sergeant," but more like a "mom" and servant leader.

"We pray for them before they come," Hernandez said. "After they come—and they are not believers—they say, 'I don't know how to pray.' After a week, they start talking to God, and they tell Him their needs. They start thanking Him that they are here at the home. I get a kick out of that."

As the women begin to open up to God, Hernandez, and others, she asks them if they want to receive salvation in Jesus Christ.

"They do," she said. "They are tough, but they open up, and they cry. God starts working and they trust Him."

Hernandez said the drug scene is much tougher than in the '70s where there was a simple drug dealer with cocaine and heroin.

"Today, there is crystal (methamphetamine) and so many other drugs," she said. "Some even use gasoline to get crazy. Ninety percent of the junkies use crystal. I show them a video, "Crystal Darkness," so they can see what crystal does to them. But dealers are more aggressive now. Gangs recruit junkies, and they are willing to die for their cause."

Hernandez' goal is to introduce them to Christ and give them a new cause—not dying for drugs and gangs, but living for Jesus.


Recovering from grief
As a young drug addict, Hernandez was sent to prison for one year. She understands prison  life and the struggle to begin anew. After she overdosed on cocaine, God turned her life around. She became a Christian at Bethel Evangelical Church in National City.

"God immediately called me to prison ministry," she said.

In 1984, she served at the Penitentiary of  Tijuana and then coordinated volunteer ministries for various detention facilities in San Diego. In 1990, she volunteered at Donovan State prison and then trained at Healthcare Chaplaincy Inc., in New York. While working as a chaplain resident in various hospitals, she studied Clinical Pastoral Education. She returned to San Diego in 2000.

Hernandez' role at the Donovan prison is "to connect a prisoner with society and to help him reconcile with God." She helps prisoners describe their fear and  anger and brings an awareness that God cares. Her compassion for people in jails and prisons is God-given, but also born out of her own pain.

Twice widowed by the age of 27, Hernandez' cup of pain overflowed when her son died in 2007.

"Last May, my son died of an overdose of heroin," she said, adding that her son has recently been released from Donovan prison after an extended prison stay.

"The first thing he did was look for a female with whom to start a relationship," his mother said. "Unfortunately, the woman was a heroin addict."

Her son disappeared for 10  days and was found dead of an overdose in a bungalow at Mission Bay. The woman was never found.

"This was devastating for me," Hernandez said. "After recovering from my grieving, I decided to open a women's home for drug-addicted women. I'm hoping that one day that woman who led my son to death will walk through these doors to recovery."

The women at the home challenge Hernandez with their tough ways, she said, but she's not deterred.

"I treat them as if they were my daughters," she said. "I try to keep up the mother figure for them. Many of them—most, ages 18 into their 20s—come from dysfunctional families. I encourage them to go to school and finish their education so that they can get a good job in the future. They are happy here."

When their nine-month commitment is completed, the women can opt to apply for a re-entry program where they will learn skills to get a job, find a place to live, and other training needed to move on.


'Youthful' clothes needed
"This women's home is not  government-funded," Hernandez said. "Neither is it funded by any other organization. We depend on community donations, church offerings, and the women in the home working and helping."

Many churches, she admitted, don't have the vision for recovery ministry, but beyond the need for financial help, there are numerous needs. Immediate needs include food—which can be given as a  Food4Less gift  card— blankets, women's cold-weather coats and jackets, shoes, and clothing.

Unfortunately, much of the clothing people offer is "old-fashioned," Hernandez said.

"It is clothing that people don't want—something that not even a grandma would wear, and remember, these are young girls.

"We are always grateful, but most of these girls struggle so hard with their  self-esteem. Their way of 'looking good' has been to show parts of their body, and I'm always saying, 'Cover yourself.'"

To teach the girls what to wear, Hernandez is looking for fashionable-but-modest clothing in medium, large, and extra large sizes. After she sorts through clothing gifts for things she believes her girls might wear, the excess is picked up for another ministry in Tijuana.

She's also praying for new shoes—sizes 6 to 8-1/2.

"People tend to give old, worn-out shoes," she said. "We'd love some new shoes."

For more information, call Chaplain Elena Hernandez at (619) 781-8749, or by e-mail at pastoraelena77@gmail.com.