Former prisoner says group changed her life

By Susan Fadem

Arrested in her car at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, Patti was charged with possession of crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia. A would-be “girl next door,” she says, and a confirmand of Temple Israel, she violated the drug-free terms of her five-year probation. As a result, she spent five months in St. Louis County Jail, enrolled in one of the jail’s drug-rehab programs. Ten days before her release in 2008, Patti — who asked that her last name not be used — received a message: Your rabbi has come to visit. Ironically, it was Dec. 20, the anniversary of her mother’s death. Diagnosed with cancer when Patti was 12, her mother died six years later. Patti’s says her first illegal drug, obtained when she was 13, was one of her mom’s legally prescribed Quaalude sedatives. Her father remarried when Patti was 19. Afterward, she says, she considered herself parent-less.  

Of what turned into her 40-year drug habit, she says: “Not feeling was so much easier than feeling.” Yet a jailhouse visit from Rabbi Jim Goodman, of Congregation Neve Shalom, stunned her: “I was a nothing, a drug user. Why would he care?” Rabbi Goodman, who was not then Patti’s rabbi, came at the suggestion of St. Louis County employee Jerry Tabak and on behalf of Jewish Prison Outreach. Tabak is now a JPO board member.  

Earlier during her jail term, Patti had been visited by other JPO representatives. Through Project COPE, a congregation/offender partnership that trains people to assists released prisoners in connecting positively with the community, JPO wanted to help Patti find a place to live. Although she had already given up on her future, aiming to return to Kentucky where she had lived previously, to “use as much and as many drugs as I possibly could and kill myself,” the attention from JPO led her to revise her plans. “This is horrible thinking,” she says, “but I decided: What’s the worse that can happen? I can always kill myself in St. Louis.” Instead, Patti has lived, drug-free, for the past 19 months, she says. 

Now age 54, she credits JPO and two of the group’s founders, Margie Kessler and Marsha Koski, whom she affectionately calls “my M&Ms,” for her progress. “Jewish Prison Outreach saved my life, or they helped me to save my life when I was ready,” she says. Partly with money she earned working as a part-time bookkeeper, a job Kessler and Koski helped her find, Patti has been able to relocate from a northside apartment to one in south St. Louis. 

Every Thursday, she takes a bus to meet Kessler and Koski for dinner in Creve Coeur. Afterward, they drive her to Congregation Neve Shalom for Rabbi Goodman’s 7-to-8 p.m. Shalvah recovery program, which they all attend. Patti describes the meeting as spiritual and eye-opening. The rabbi “makes Judaism relevant to my life,” she says. Patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous and geared to recovering addicts, their support system and co-dependents, the meeting is open to the public. 

Other attendees drive Patti home. She has begun sharing her story with area Sunday School students. Nonetheless, life has not been easy. Ever since her first job ended, she has been looking for another. Last January, despite the prescribed medications she takes for her diagnosed borderline personality disorder, suicidal thoughts returned. 

Rabbi Goodman was the first person she telephoned. Of her ongoing relationship with JPO, she says: “They won’t give up on me. If I would try to hide from them right now, I couldn’t. I love them to death. They really want to help. That was hard to accept. Somebody really cares.”