by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Angels and outsiders have hovered near Eileen Gilkenson for much of her life. Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Gilkenson grew up in a working-class family that valued service. “My great-grandmother came to Pawtucket from Ireland during the Potato Famine,” Gilkenson said, speaking of the food shortage that began in 1845, lasted seven years and caused more than one million deaths.
Once in America, Gilkenson’s family struggled with poverty. Scarcity, crises and frequent moves due to her father’s Navy career gave Gilkenson an unusual perspective. “I’m drawn to people no one wants to think about,” said Gilkenson, 62, of Mt. Airy. “I don’t lose sight of people on the edge, those who are forgotten … My mother and grandparents gave up so much for me. I felt obligated to make something of my life.”
At age 18, while a freshman at the University of Rochester, Eileen’s mother died in a car accident. “I had no money,” she said. “I thought I’d have to leave school.” Angels entered in the guise of school administrators. When they learned about her mother’s death, they gave her a full scholarship.
Still, death bracketed Gilkenson’s college years. Her grandmother died shortly before her graduation. “She had lost her only son in World War II when he was 18, and then her daughter — my mother — died in the accident. It was as if my grandmother waited to see me launched.”
A history major drawn by Philadelphia’s reformist past, Gilkenson moved here in 1974. “Philadelphia had been at the center of the anti-slavery movement,” she said. “I was excited to be here, and I still am.” Gilkenson hoped that Philly’s activist tradition would help her change the Welfare Department, which she joined as a caseworker. “I found that my job meant doling out money and giving poor people a hard time,” she said. “I couldn’t make a difference.” Therefore, Gilkenson left for the University of Pennsylvania and earned a master’s degree in social work.
Fate gave Gilkenson a chance to touch people’s lives. In 1980, mentors persuaded her to become director of Women Against Abuse, a shelter for battered women and their children. “I had no supervisory experience,” she said. “Those experienced advisors were a blessing. I had to do hard things, like put people out when they ignored rules, but I learned that I could be a supervisor and do good things with leadership.”
One day on her way to work, Gilkenson saw a former shelter resident selling her baby’s formula to buy crack. “The woman was crying about it, but that’s how strong her addiction was. She was a good mother otherwise, but her children ended up in foster care.”
Gilkenson had other positions that helped people teetering on the edge. She worked in a homeless shelter, a group home for at-risk teenage girls and a residential program for pregnant women addicted to drugs. In one case, a program kept pregnant women addicted to cocaine drug-free for nine months but provided no aftercare. Many women relapsed, yet in a kind of statistical shell game, they were deemed successes because of the clean pregnancies. “How can you call that success?” Gilkenson asked rhetorically.
In 1994, the year she left the program for expectant mothers, Gilkenson’s angels worked overtime. Within months she “fell into a job at Horizon House,” which provides clinical services and housing for adults with mental illness. Over her 17 years there, Gilkenson rose to director of residential services. She made services more recovery-oriented and kept employee morale high.
“The African-American para-professional staff made a huge difference,” she said. “They were kind, gentle and earned the minimum wage. I learned a lot from them. The residents got better because the staff respected and cared about them.” Gilkenson saw many of her programs cut due to the recession.
Hampered by shrinking resources, she moved on. Besides serving as a tutor for at-risk students at Germantown High School and campaigning against the death penalty, for which she won the 2009 First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) Racial and Social Justice Award, she had volunteered to visit inmates in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia under the auspices of Prison Visitation and Support (PVS).
“After Horizon House, I wanted something part-time with benefits,” said Gilkenson, whose husband, activist Ray Torres, received the FUMCOG award years earlier. (Eileen and Ray enjoy their grandchildren, who live nearby.) “Lo and behold, a PVS position opened up for someone to recruit and train volunteers to visit inmates in U.S. federal and military prisons,” said Gilkenson, a PVS recruitment coordinator since 2011.
“You may be convicted in Philly but be sent to prison in California or rural Kentucky,” Gilkenson said, noting that the more than 200 federal prisons house about 1400 inmates each. “Family and friends often lack funds for a visit. Some inmates have waited more than three years for a visitor. Depression and suicide are not uncommon.”
Yet, inmates can be resilient. “Women find powerful motivation in their children,” Gilkenson said. “Some men teach fellow inmates to read. One man talks on the phone every day with his son to make sure he’s done his homework. This man’s in jail but is determined to be a good parent.”
Visits warm prisoners’ lives, but they also reward visitors, who make one monthly visit and see three to five inmates on that day. “You know you’ve helped someone by listening,” Gilkenson said. “Once you start visiting, you’re hooked. One couple in their 90s has been visiting for 20 years.”
Visitors must spend their own carfare or gas money since PVS doesn’t reimburse those expenses. Volunteers must also be good listeners. “You can’t go in with your own agenda,” Gilkenson said. “It’s not for everyone. It’s unpleasant to hear the door clang shut behind you and hear the sad stories.
“Donating to PVS or to someone who makes a sacrifice to visit a friend or relative is another option. A donation would help defray that person’s expenses.”
For more information, visit www.prisonvisitation.org or call 215-241-7117.