In an Old East Dallas mansion, former prostitutes and strippers are seeking redemption from an unlikely source: a convicted felon.
He may just be an answer to their prayers.
“I feel like I died and went to heaven,” said Polly, a former prostitute and crack user.
Restored Hope Ministries aims to give the women a fresh start in life.
They have to forgo cellphones, social media, smoking, alcohol, drugs, income and privacy for an entire year. And the six women are putting their trust in Sam Pollinzi, who served eight years in prison on drug and robbery charges.
The women, who asked to be referred to by pseudonyms because of safety concerns, arrived at the ministry for former drug users, prostitutes and the abused within two months — not long after it opened.
Pollinzi and his wife, Sherry, modeled their ministry after ex-offender housing provider Exodus Ministries, where Pollinzi once served as executive director.
The couple rely on private donations, as well as help from volunteers and churchgoers at the nondenominational Covenant Church in Carrollton, where Pollinzi is a member and a former staff member.
Restored Hope also has the support of Dallas’ 6-year-old Prostitution Diversion Initiative, which gives some arrested women a choice between jail time and rehab.
Judges are permitted to refer women to the ministry, and one — Judge Peggy Hoffman — has done so.
Hoffman said the Pollinzis are fulfilling a need: Dallas is “really lacking in transitional housing,” she said.
Although there are about 40 nonprofit organizations that aid local efforts to reform prostitutes, Pollinzi’s is the first to provide faith-based programming and transitional lodging, said Renee Breazeale, a senior case manager for the Dallas County district attorney’s office.
“They need that long-term support, and a place like Pastor Sam’s — it’s perfect,” she said. “It’s absolutely essential. We don’t have enough places that do this. Pastor Sam is doing God’s work.”
Once they’re at the home, which Pollinzi leases from another nonprofit, the women have a strict 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily regimen, which includes Bible study, classes and chores, including cooking.
“We’re trying to teach them the basics — go back to find out where they were hurt,” Pollinzi said. “And they get to talk — pimps don’t let them talk. They get to express their feelings.”
Women, not inmates
The house is stocked with donated food and furniture.
Combined, the bedrooms can comfortably accommodate 15 women.
The rooms are themed: Beverly Hills, New York, Italy, Paris, London and Morocco.
The security theme could be Fort Knox. Alarms and cameras are everywhere. A house manager lives downstairs, and the women are not permitted to leave without supervision.
The house’s address is kept secret to keep away bad influences. Even the women’s relatives are granted only limited contact.
“Our biggest priority is to keep them safe,” Pollinzi said.
But the 5,000-square-foot home is far from restrictive, the women said.
“We’re not treated like inmates,” said Nicole, a 31-year-old former prostitute. “We’re treated like women.”
Cause close to heart
Pollinzi knows what it’s like to be an inmate.
In 1974, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for aggravated robbery and dealing heroin. While in prison, he found religion and became a church deacon at the Huntsville Eastham prison. There, he earned his GED and a college degree, and was paroled in 1982. Since then, he has dedicated much of his life to helping addicts and other offenders.
Pollinzi worked at Covenant Church for more than a decade and spent several years directing the church’s faith-based program for addicts. Brian Coleman, the church’s chief operating officer, said Pollinzi’s troubled past allowed him to coach addicts to better futures.
But, Coleman said, Pollinzi became frustrated that he couldn’t provide a safe place for the people he was trying to help. With the church’s support, Pollinzi left the program to start Restored Hope Ministries.
Pollinzi then pitched the idea to the district attorney’s office. Spokeswoman Debbie Denmon, who knew Pollinzi from his work at the church, said the office vetted Pollinzi and decided his criminal history wasn’t a detriment.
“We’re hoping that even some of his past life experiences will serve as an inspiration to these women who struggled for so long with their lives,” Denmon said.
Sherry Pollinzi, who is also a pastor, said her own experiences help her relate to the women, too. She said she was abused in her first marriage.
“It’s easy to look at someone and say they’re terrible or horrible, but they’re human beings, just like we are,” she said.
The Pollinzis want the women to be prepared to succeed when their year with Restored Hope is finished. A computer instructor visits weekly to teach the women Microsoft Office, so they “don’t have to go work at a McDonald’s or Taco Bueno,” Sam Pollinzi said.
But the women — some of whom said they had six-figure annual incomes as prostitutes — have dreams beyond secretarial skills.
Polly wants to be a dentist. Nicole would like to be a nurse. Pinky, a former stripper who was on heroin, hopes to be a physical therapist. Gabriella wants to be an attorney.
The Pollinzis have bigger dreams, too. They want to expand the project into other areas, and hope that a bill recently filed in the Texas Legislature will pass and make prostitution diversion programs mandatory for large counties.
“We’ve got jails and prisons in Texas everywhere,” Sherry Pollinzi said. “But we don’t have enough programs to keep offenders from going back.”