On a Thursday night in April 2002, Robert Valdez fell to his knees and wept at the chapel, while he was serving his prison sentence.
Now more than 20 years later, Valdez is the executive director of the House of Hope taking all his knowledge about turning his life away from a criminal lifestyle to live a faith-based life. His job entails helping former and current incarcerated men and women to leading them to a path of success.
“Three years after prison I said I wanted to go back into prison,” Valdez said.
Valdez, 48, was living a life full of addiction and crime when he ended up being incarcerated between 1999-2003. Halfway through his sentence he had an encounter with Jesus at a worship service where he felt a tug a war inside of himself to give his life over to Christ. This powerful transformation caused Valdez to fall to the floor on his knees as he felt Jesus’s presence. After being released in July 2003, Valdez went through the House of Hope, a prison transitional home, where he was given encouragement and hope to walk with God and rebuild his life.
After completing the program, Valdez got connected with a local church gaining experience in different levels of leadership, received his pastoral credentials at Global University in affiliation with the Assemblies of God, and began working at Greenhouse Church South Florida campus for three years as their associate pastor. This eventually led him to coming back to Gainesville and the House of Hope to work with past and current inmates giving them messages to encourage them to change their lives.
“Now I can share with these men and women and I am able to relate with them, but share with them look where I am and look at what God’s done,” Valdez said.
The House of Hope started in the spring of 1994 when a group of men and women from a local church in Gainesville formed a council to assist men and women transitioning back into society from prisons. In the winter of 1994, the church hosted a fundraiser dinner for their vision, raising more than $30,000, which became the seed money to purchase a home for the men coming out of prison. After months of prayer and effort from these individuals the House of Hope officially opened its doors in July 1995.
Today, the House of Hope has a high-structure program that is six months to a year, determined on a case-by-case basis, building the lives of individuals through Christianity with coaching and ministering. In order to apply you must fill out an application where the director will contact you, and depending on your prison location you will have an in-person or phone interview.
Gary Wyder who was on the board of the House of Hope from 1996 to 2010, screened prisoners to make sure they picked viable candidates for the program. Wyder said this screening involved an interview, checking their history and talking to the Chaplin and other inmates about the individual’s behavior.
“We are looking for people who are broken, need guidance and need help, but are already attending a chapel program in the prison and realize they need this assistance and want to change,” Wyder said.
Once a prisoner enters the House of Hope there is a structure to the program. This structure includes a Bible-based 12-Step program (B-12) meeting on Monday at the University City Church of Christ. B-12 is a Christ-centered group meeting for individuals to get support as they travel down a challenging road of recovery, co-dependency and alcoholism. Additionally, other bible studies are conducted Tuesday and Thursday, a volunteer group comes in on Wednesday, and attendance at a church service is mandatory once a week. The House also has a no drugs, smoking or drinking policy..
Valdez said this structure is to help lay a foundation because of how vulnerable an individual may be when they come out of the prison.
“If I didn’t have structure when I got out of prison, I would go back to exactly what I knew before,” Valdez said.
There are two separate houses for the House of Hope, one for men and one for women, where both house managers have done prison time, gone through the House of Hope program and now live in the house leading others to Christ through the program.
Donna Lynnlord, 73, the current women’s house manager, was convicted of first-degree murder. She served 15 years in Broward Correctional Institute and 15 years in Lowell Correctional Institute prior to going into the House of Hope program in March 2020.
“I thought I was a Christian before I went to prison, but prison showed me what a real Christian is, and that is how I came to the House of Hope,” Lynnlord said.
Lynnlord said she could have left the House of Hope in 2021 after she finished the program. But she wanted to encourage other women coming out of prison and help them get out of the criminal mentality.
The houses vary with how many individuals are staying in there at the same time. Now, Lynnlord lives in the women’s house with one woman in the program, Miranda Valentine.
Valentine, 35, was released from Florida Women’s Reception Center in October 2022, and is committing herself to being a productive person in society with the help of the House of Hope.
Within a week of being released from prison Valentine secured a job at Outreach Thrift Store in Gainesville where she recently received a raise, and her boss told her she is an asset to the place. She recently got her driver’s license and has set up short-term and long-term goals to maintain her progress.
Valentine said the House of Hope has given her time to work on herself while enjoying the small and personal bible studies.
“The House of Hope has felt like a home, not institutionalized. I have had time to do things for me,” Valentine said.
Knickknacks, wall art and flowers take up space in the homes to make it even more inviting. The House of Hope’s homey feel creates an environment that is “conducive to inspire change,” Valdez said. By providing individuals with a safe space that is contrastingly different than a prison, it gives them motivation to change their behavior and want to become a better person in the community.
At the end of the six-month to one-year program there is a graduation celebration to recognize the change and growth of an individual’s behavior and relationship with their faith. These ceremonies include the individual talking about what they gained from going through the program while also being celebrated in a way that is geared toward their likings and interests. Lynnlord said that one graduation she fixed lasagna for everyone at the house while another graduation had a gift raffle.
“Sometimes I feel like we don’t celebrate the graduations enough. They should be a true ceremony because some of these people who have come out of prison have never had any success,” Valdez said.
Today the House of Hope has an 85-89% success rate with people coming through the program that don’t return to prison. Some of these individuals have gone on to work in prison ministry, stay at the House of Hope and work for them, go on to work for companies in the Gainesville areas, such as Perry Roofing Company, or even have started their own business.
Senator Keith Perry is the owner of Perry Roofing Company and offers job opportunities to many of the individuals coming out of the House of Hope. One employee, Marianne Vandongen, served 27 years in prison before working for Sen. Perry.
“We interviewed her and hired her, she had struggles to adapt and adjust but has been an incredible employee. She was voted employee of the year by her peers a year later after working there,” Perry said.
Perry said the structure, accountability and mentors is what is changes these people.
Additionally, Tracee Carter, one of the current board members of the House of Hope, graduated from the House of Hope program in 2000. He stayed at the house because he wanted to go back to the prisons to preach and be a part of changing people’s lives for the better, like he was changed. Carter now owns his own pressure washing business and has been working at Home Depot for more than seven years.
“My goal is to employ guys who have gone through the program and graduated from the House of Hope,” Carter said.
Going forward Valdez wants to connect with local leaders and developers in the community in order to make a House of Hope Center. This center will serve as a multipurpose space for gatherings, meetings and classes, as well as become an extension of the House of Hope. Anyone that comes to this center will get in touch with resources, such as a job, social work and housing while members of the House of Hope help lead them in the right direction.
“The House of Hope was a defining moment in my life because it became the place where I found hope and knew there was a new beginning being given to me, and now I can give that to others,” Valdez said.