When Gail Ray's son was sent to prison in 2004, she didn't know of anyone who could identify with the pain.
"I needed something, somewhere to go and talk with people who knew what I was going through," Ray said.
Instead, for months, she cried alone, a bit ashamed and a bit afraid of public ridicule.
She found a program based in Alabama that offered support for families, but she wanted something closer, more flexible and more responsive to families in the Bluegrass.
That's when she took to heart the adage that if you want something done, do it yourself.
Ray joined forces with two other women, Elwanda McNeal and Bonita Redmond, to form Never Alone: Families of the Incarcerated Weathering this Storm Together on Sept. 17, 2007.
"Not a lot of people know about us," said Ray, 58. "We are gaining recognition, though. But mostly it has been Bonita, Elwanda and myself."
But there were more than 50 adults and children who attended a Halloween party the group held last year and more than 30 at the Valentine's party this year. Because of the growing number of inmates in Kentucky, the three women know more families are hurting in silence.
Kentucky's Program Review and Investigations Committee, a bipartisan legislative group, reported that Kentucky housed 21,473 inmates in 2009, an increase from the 15,164 in 2000. Much of that is due to our recidivism rate of 42 percent, compared to the national average of 34 percent.
A 2008 Pew Center on the States report noted that more that 2.3 million adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails, or about one of every 99.1 adults. That number was higher than in any other country in the world, and Kentucky had the biggest surge at 12 percent.
That's a lot of suffering behind closed doors, and Redmond knows all about that.
Her son was two credits shy of getting his master's degree, and he had a wife and family when he was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to four years in prison, she said.
"My hurt, my pain, my anger," Redmond, 60, said of the emotions she experiences when her son, her only child, went to prison. "I needed someplace to vent to release my feelings. I had no place to go, and I knew there had to be someplace out there."
She started a group at her church, Shiloh Baptist.
"When I made the announcement in church, I couldn't believe how many people who had been quiet and silent (wanted to join). They were going through the same pain and hurt that I was."
The problem, the women all agreed, is the stigma that is placed on the families of those who have been convicted of a crime.
Before her son was incarcerated, Ray said, she labeled convicted felons and their families as trash.
"I'd say, 'How can you let him do this kind of stuff,'" she said. "So many people look at those in jail and prison as the scum of the earth. It took me going through it to make me see everyone makes mistakes."
McNeal, 60, who has a prison ministry at Greater Liberty Baptist Church, said she stood up in one meeting and said, "I don't see anyone here who could not have gone to prison or jail."
McNeal's son, a gifted basketball player who got involved with drugs, was sentenced to 30 years in prison when he was 22. That was 11 years ago.
"In order to save our children, our wives, husbands, aunties and uncles, we can no longer hide in the closet," she said. "We have to stop the recidivism, and we can't do that if we don't heal."
And that is what Never Alone is all about, the women said. It is about healing a broken heart and trying to teach family members what to say to those coming out of prison and to support them as well.
Members of the support group listen and share their stories. Sometimes members just need to vent. Sometimes they need a shoulder. And at other times they need a phone number they can call in the middle of the night when burdens get too heavy.
"We want to educate people that it's OK to hurt," McNeal said, "but they can come to a meeting and share and heal because Bonita's story might help you, Gail's story might help you. My story might help you.
"You don't have to sit at home and cry by yourself."
There are guest speakers at some meetings, and the members share resources, encourage ex-felons and let children know they are not responsible or accountable for what their parents have done.
To that end, Never Alone is starting a group for young people called Youth Revolution. They will be meeting separately with adult oversight.
Never Alone's founders have had inquiries from people in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, who want to start similar groups there.
As of now, Ray's husband is footing most of the bills for the group. That includes printing fliers and brochures. The group would love to have someone help defray those costs. And, Ray, Redmond and McNeal would like to have the services of a therapist for family members who come to meetings needing more emotional help than group members feel capable of giving.
The group meets once a month, alternating between Lexington and Georgetown. On the third Thursday of one month, they meet at Imani Baptist Church, 1555 Georgetown Road, Lexington. The following month, they meet the third Monday at Ed Davis Learning Center, 151 Ed Davis Lane, Georgetown. The meetings are from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
"This is not a prison ministry," Ray said. "This is a support group. It doesn't matter what faith you are or if you have no faith. Whatever. When you come to us, we want you to feel welcome."
For information about Never Alone, call Ray at (502) 867-1539, Redmond at (859) 233-3243 or McNeal at (502)867-7842.