'Lives are transformed': Addiction recovery program celebrates 50 years

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Tabitha Pacheco was certain that if she could just move away from her toxic life in New Jersey, things would get better. 

She would stop using heroin. She would seek the help she needed. Moving to Pennsylvania was her answer.

Unfortunately, the things she strived for didn't happen.

“I got myself into trouble here,” Pacheco said. “I got a DUI with my kids in the car, and I wound up in Cumberland County Prison.” 

That’s where she first heard about New Life for Girls — but Pacheco initially didn’t want anything to do with it. 

The 12-month-long Christian-taught rehabilitation program provides housing for women struggling with addiction. Strict rules — like no phone use and limited time off the property — make it challenging for those first entering. 

But after Pacheco “messed up over and over again,” she finally gave the program a try.

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Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

New Life for Girls is celebrating 50 years in York County this year. Rehabilitation comes in the form of counseling, GED prep courses, self-discipline, and academic, vocational and work ethics training.

The program requires students to live in dorm-style rooms with multiple roommates. Women with children are welcome, too, and are offered private living accommodations. 

When Pacheco first got to New Life for Girls, it was just her and her two daughters. 

From left, volunteer Stephanie Rose, Dean of Students Wanda Hasikins and new student Mia Becker are shown in a prayer circle ending Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

“It's me and my two little broken girls, because I was a mess,” Pacheco said. “I'd be in the chapel at night crying out, ‘God, please help me to be a better mother.’”

Depending on the severity of substance abuse, many women will complete programming at an introduction center to wean themselves off drugs or alcohol before coming to New Life for Girls.

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They are then required to complete the 12-month course before graduating into the Reentry and Observation Program. 

Students Hailey Sterner, front, and Sade DeShields, both of York, sing worship songs during Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

That program offers more luxuries for women who finish the 12 months. Though Reentry and Observation is not mandatory, many women choose to stay at New Life for Girls to find housing, secure a job and figure out their life plan.

Although women are not allowed to leave the property on their own, staff members organize group shopping trips and accompany women to visit family members. Program students are also able to use recreation facilities, like the basketball courts, or to stroll around the property, Pacheco said.

In addition, New Life for Girls has a nursery for young children. Faculty members take care of children while their mothers attend classes and complete chores until 4 p.m., when the mothers take over to be with their kids.

Student Jenyla Lee, of York, takes notes during Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

School-age children are picked up by a bus to attend Northeastern School District. Currently, there are children as young as 5 months and as old as 8 years living at the facility.

New Life for Girls was founded in 1972 by Cookie Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was addicted to drugs while living in New York City. She eventually sought help from Teen Challenge Ministry — a program at the time offered primarily to men.

Stephanie Allen, of Dillsburg, holds her 4-month-old son Hunter Allen during worship in Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

After getting clean, Rodriguez felt compelled to open a program specifically for women, according to New Life for Girls Executive Director José Pacheco.

"She saw that there was a need to be able to get these women out of the city of New York, out of their environment, and bring them somewhere," he said. "They ended up in York County."

José Pacheco started working at New Life for Girls 49 years ago. He is retiring Oct. 1 and will be replaced by current assistant director Kathy Kelly Brown.

Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

There is a $140 one-time processing fee when women join. If a woman is unable to pay, however, the fee is waived.

Financial support for New Life for Girls primarily comes from donations from individuals, groups and churches.

Tabitha Pacheco, who first came to New Life for Girls out of prison, now works for the organization, overseeing the prison ministry.

She found a new life within the program and, ultimately, a life partner as well. After she graduated, she returned and married the program's director.

Brian Connolly, Itinerant Minister with Praise Community Church, delivers a message of hope and faith during Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Connolly is the founder of Faith Like Birds Ministries at Praise Community Church. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

"I get to work in the prisons where I came from," Pacheco said. "I get to speak at the same prison New Life for Girls got me from. They let me in and out of the doors freely — and so it's just really cool and like a complete turnaround for me."

Many faculty working at New Life for Girls at one point were involved in the program themselves — like Pacheco and Brown.

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"I was a functioning, dysfunctional person. Just broken and empty on the inside until I found out about the program," Brown said. "New Life for Girls gave me a sense of purpose and a passion for other people — and there was no looking back."

Some say New Life for Girls is like a "fishbowl" environment, Brown said.

Student Aida Dickson, of Enid Oklahoma, sings during Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

She referenced a common expression at the nonprofit: "sandpaper sisters."

"We kind of rub up against each other — the good, the bad and the ugly," Brown said. "I always tell the ladies, you make me better and I make you better."

On the 27-acre property sits a Christian cross-shaped building where all students in the program eat, sleep and learn.

Sounds of nature and the soft rustle of trees mix with lectures being taught and lives reshaping.

"This is a mountain where miracles take place," Brown said. "Lives are transformed."

New student Mia Becker is shown during Family Chapel at New Life for Girls in Conewago Township, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch