Every thing was going well for Annette Rivera until she experienced a bipolar onset in her early twenties that led her to self-medicate and lose sight of her future, she said.
Rivera was born in the Bronx but spent most of her young life in Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually she made her way to San Francisco at just 18 years old, where she attended University of San Francisco to obtain her degree in philosophy. But after getting involved in drugs and alcohol, she recalled feeling angry and hurt.
“I was really angry and I had a lot of trauma and abuse as a child. It’s not like I gave up my power to a higher being, I gave up myself. I realized that myself is just so small,” Rivera said.
In September 2014, after almost a year of sobriety, Rivera joined a program at the Gracenter, a residential alcoholism and drug abuse recovery facility for women in San Francisco’s Portola District. Following a unique 12-step approach, the sisters at Gracenter promote long-term recovery from addiction, according to their pamphlet.
“(The Gracenter) really changed my life,” said Rivera, who said she hopes to complete her degree in philosophy in an extended learning program at SF State after she completes her time at Gracenter.
Inside Gracenter’s beige one-story flat that overlooks the bay, executive director Sister Marguerite Bartling houses up to 13 women at a time. Along with a gratitude room and media lab, the women can continue to recover in a practical environment that has similar amenities to home life, according to Bartling.
After spending her early years in Southern California, Bartling found her calling in religion after attending California State University, Fullerton, where she got to know the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. In the 1970s she committed herself to Catholicism and became a sister. She attended SF State and received her master’s degree in social work in 1994.
“I love seeing the women grow more confident, become happier in their lives and achieve success,” Bartling said.
In the Gracenter kitchen, a large round table sat in front of sliding glass doors where the reflection of the 12 steps shined onto the parallel wall. In the living room down the hall, women bonded over board games and television.
“For along time I thought I had it under control,” said Shatoya Scarbrough, a new resident at Gracenter. “I thought I could still do what I was doing and function and this and that. I’ve learned how to surrender and say ‘look, I need help.'”
Scarbrough said she has been living at Gracenter for three months and has participated in a volunteer outreach program to feed the homeless. Her voice shook as she recalled having no place to sleep.
“It’s something dear to my heart and my dream had came true,” Scarbrough said. “It was important to me because I had been there, I had been homeless at a point in time and I know how it is. It’s just giving back.”
The women of Gracenter can stay for up to two years, but the center encourages them to agree to a room for six months after a trial period in the shared room. The ideal candidate for the Gracenter is a woman between18 and 35 who is ready to reclaim her life, according to the program’s guidelines. Each woman must also be sober for at least 30 days prior to entering the program, according to a Gracenter pamphlet.
Bartling said she and program director Sandra Munoz assist the women at Gracenter whenever they need it, being on call almost 24 hours a day.
Through the program, women are encouraged to recover, obtain higher education through community resources and seek employment opportunities, according to Bartling.
“It offers a chance for women to restore their lives and how they’re going to live positively in the future,” Rivera said. “How they’re going to affect change within themselves and their community. I’m really grateful to be here.”