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City People

Giving her golden years

She thought retirement would be for reading or traveling. But her heart told her otherwise: She was meant to help others.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003


BAYSHORE GARDENS -- In the same sweet voice one might use to offer lemonade, she admits she's not "some do-gooder woman."

But Margaret Palmer, steely, southern and preoccupied, says she's finally doing what God "made me to do."

At 76, trifled only by a hint of bursitis, Palmer still walks the walk.

Stories spill out about the women she's counseled in prison, the ones who keep hitting the streets and returning, over and over. Knee to knee with them, she has prayed for good to replace grim.

Once known as CHAT ladies -- short for "come hide away and talk" -- Palmer and a brigade of volunteers from a local Bible study class began an informal women's ministry in the mid 1980s at the Hillsborough County Jail.

She'll speak of the women she knew there, in that place with no air-conditioning or heat, where cell doors clanged shut like death knells.

Palmer's been at it for 18 years now, and she's learned something troubling: "When many of these women leave the jail, often they're more afraid of the unknown than going back to the streets," she says. "Sometimes they have nowhere to go, and the streets are the only option."

Sometimes reality is even more harsh.

"A lot of times a pimp or drug dealer will find out when a woman is being released," she says. "Even if the woman doesn't tell them, word travels fast. Then they track her down, and she goes right back to her old life."

Palmer is the force behind a new Christian residential program for women recently released from county jail.

She and about nine volunteer board members run a small, not-for-profit organization that holds the remaining $75,000 mortgage on a modest house they bought earlier this year.

Refusing to call it a halfway house, she has christened the two-story dwelling House of Hope. She wants to keep its location secret -- because a chance to start over means no pimps, no drug dealers and no loser ex-boyfriends. It opens Tuesday.

The idea sprang out of depression.

Five years ago, Palmer realized she had reached an age when most people are content to simply have fun, but she couldn't bear the idea of idleness. A commitment toward activism burned inside her.

She had raised two children, supported her husband through three terms in the Georgia Legislature, worked off and on in radio news, theater production and event planning, found God and volunteered dutifully. Her prison ministry had brought hope to many women.

Palmer just kept wondering if there could be more. "I went to see my minister, who said, 'Margaret, has it ever dawned on you that maybe it's time for you to be doing something that you really ought to be doing?"'

Then she knew: Palmer began recruiting volunteers and talking to law enforcement experts about the feasibility of a residential program that might really change women's lives.

"Margaret has a very compelling mission and is also a very compelling person," says Claudia Sellers, an insurance executive and volunteer executive director of House of Hope.

"She is answering a calling so late in life, at a time when most people are winding down. I have never seen a woman so full of energy and joy."

House of Hope is plain-faced and old enough to have a big front porch. It's hidden in a tree-lined residential neighborhood on the edges of downtown. Three churches -- Hyde Park United Methodist, Bayshore Baptist and the Lutz-based Grace Family Church -- have offered support.

It's been prettied up on a shoestring. One church member has loaned his carpentry and painting skills. Others have helped make it welcoming.

With a $500 budget, a group of five women friends -- walking partners, previously -- have sewn floral curtains and throw-pillow covers, arranged donated furniture and covered the twin beds in matching comforters and shams.

"We're not church-going or religious people, but we respect what Margaret Palmer is doing," says Georgia Arner, who lives in the same Apollo Beach neighborhood as Sellers.

Adept at sewing, decorating and rummaging through bargain bins, they refused the initial $1,000 budget and offered to get by on half "so the house could use the money for other things," Arner says.

House of Hope will serve only three women at a time. Palmer believes in full attention on a small number of women.

Because the program is religious, enrollment is voluntary, but admission will be competitive, "sort of like getting into Harvard," says Sellers.

The women will be expected to hold full-time jobs and will live under the watchful eye of an on-site residential manager.

Over the years, Palmer has made friends in the right places. Experts with backgrounds in nutrition, parenting and job skills will offer the women counseling. She has asked the three churches to each adopt a woman: "That way they can help take care of her clothing and personal needs."

Palmer and her husband, Tom, have been married 55 years. They live Canterbury Towers, a retirement community on Bayshore Boulevard, where meals are provided and they can ease into onsite healthcare if they need it and "never be a burden to our children."

The view of Tampa Bay from their apartment is magnificent. For all of this, Palmer is grateful. But she is not content to sit and look out the window.

"This had long been a dream and I knew there was a need. God finally opened the door and pushed," Palmer says.

"This is not the way I expected to spend the decade of my 70s. People ask me what I plan to do during these years. I had thought I would read and travel a lot. Now I have this house and a big mortgage. When I look at the figures, I say, 'My God, what are you doing?"'

She already knows the answer: Exactly what God wants her to do.

-- For more information about the House of Hope, call 839-6118.

Margaret Palmer

  • AGE: 76
  • MARRIED: 55 years
  • HUSBAND: Tom Palmer
  • CHILDHOOD HOME: Columbus, Ga.
  • VOCATION: Gives hope to women in jail
  • LATEST PROJECT: House of Hope, a residential program for women newly released from the Hillsborough County Jail
  • HOBBY: Reading historical novels
  • HOME: Canterbury Tower, Bayshore Boulevard
  • FAVORITE VIEW: Hillsborough Bay, from her window

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