MONTESANO, Wash. — After spending 11 years in and out of county jails, Jennifer Gonzales now gets paid to spend time behind bars.
The certified peer counselor meets with incarcerated people at the Grays Harbor County Jail, sometimes daily.
“I love being able to give back to the community. And proving people wrong,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales was once homeless and battled addiction for years. She now works with the Coastal Community Action Program in Aberdeen.
The Grays Harbor County Public Health received the funding to pay for the program from a federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In face-to-face meetings with Gonzales and another peer counselor, Richard Kelley, incarcerated people receive counseling and assistance connecting with social services to help with everything from housing to mental health assistance.
Gonzales has picked up incarcerated people when they’re let out and driven them straight to shelters.
Grays Harbor County Community Health Specialist Wilma Weber, said about 70 incarcerated people have received assistance under the program in the past two years.
Weber said about 70% of those who have been released have not returned to prison after meeting with and getting help from the peer counselors.
Gonzales said she wishes she had the kind of help she now provides.
”I believe that it works," Gonzales said. "At the end of the day somebody knows there’s somebody that truly cares about them.”