NewsPrice of Paradise


From addict to mentor: How a single Sarasota mom found faith in God and her community

Sarasota nonprofit is a safe haven for women
Alyisa Bartruff, a mentor at Prodigal Daughters Journey Home, seen with her two children.
Posted at 5:09 AM, Jan 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-05 18:18:47-05

SARASOTA, Fla. — If the pandemic has shown us anything, it's that we are not alone in our struggles. Some may feel alone, but help is just a phone call, text, e-mail, or social media post away. So many Americans faced sickness, financial stress, anxiety, depression, fear of the unknown, and so much more.

Before the pandemic, Alyisa Bartruff battled her own illness and demons. Addicted to drugs, Bartruff, a mother of two young children, longed to be free from her uncontrollable cravings.

"The key in my recovery was my support system. And, I realized that I always had that support system. But it wasn't coming from where I wanted it to come from, you know, so I rejected it prideful, you know, I don't want that help from you," Bartruff said. "But, I realized when I started receiving the help from strangers that God had put in my life, that's when my life started to turn around."

Bartruff shared her story with ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska to let others know help is out there. And what finally forced her to get clean and sober.

"I hit my bottom, and everybody's bottom looks different. But, my bottom was my bottom. It was bad. It was hell. I had no peace. And that's what I longed for; I wanted peace," Bartruff said. "I knew if I kept going the way I was going for all the years, it wasn't going to be peace that I found quite the opposite. So I knew I needed to make a change. And I did. I wasn't quite sure what that looked like. But I knew I wasn't going down the same road I was going down. So, I turned around and I started searching and reaching out for help."

Bartruff said she had a lot of doors slammed in her face. But, one nonprofit welcomed her, Prodigal Daughters Journey Home.

It was there that Bartruff said she put her faith in God and went through the recovery home's Christ-centered and challenging 18-month program to save her life. The safe-haven helps women gain control over their lives. Some are in recovery for alcohol or drug addiction, others abuse and human trafficking.

Denise Gattuso is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC) with over 35 years of experience.

"I myself came out of addiction," Gattuso said.

Gattuso and her husband Joseph founded the nonprofit. They sold their home in New York, left their families, and moved to Florida.

"God brought me down here," Gattuso said. "It gives me hope; when I see the change in the girls, and I see it, it's miraculous. It's a very hard job to do. It's my husband and I and Alyisa and the two girls that have stepped up. When we sit at night, we do God stories about how God showed up in your life. As tough as my days are, sometimes when I hear the girls and I hear their change in their thinking, and their gratitude and the things that they say okay, I'm coming back tomorrow."

Gattuso said there are thousands of women that need help. With the pandemic, soaring inflation, food prices, rent increases, and the cost of child care. The women in her program wouldn't be able to make it.

But, she said through the help of donations, the community and food banks like Hunger's End and Feeding Tampa Bay the nonprofit can give the women stability to be moms and survive to be successful.

"We walk alongside of them and teach them how to parent their children. I'm a certified GRIP teacher, which is God Raising Incredible Parents. So I teach them that, and they get certificates if they need it for CPS (Child Protective Services); some of them come in, and they're not on the CPS, but we still take them through that course."

Gattuso said thousands of women are now on the streets that need help. But, there aren't enough resources.

If they don't get help, she said they often "die from overdoses, they are living on the streets. That's why the homeless population here is so immense. And, they're locked up in jails, institutions, and death. That's the three options if they don't have a place to go to be helped."

"How proud are you of Alyisa?" Paluska asked.

"Oh my goodness, she, she's like my own daughter. You know, these girls are like my own children. They're spiritual children. And so when you see them thrive, and you see the kids change until you know, they're praying at the table, that they're walking alongside their moms that it's just it's worth it all. You know, it's worth it all. It's worth, you know, leaving my family, my children, my grandchildren to come to help them," Gattuso said.

For several years Bartruff didn't have custody of her children. Now, they are with her 24/7 giving this young mom more than she could've ever imagined.

"They teach me so much about myself. I'm constantly learning from them, how to be a better mom, how to communicate with them. Some issues I still have that I don't want them to have. And just the love that we have, the bond that we share, even though I am a single mother, we are strong. We're three, and we're strong together."

Bartruff now mentors women at the home who walked in her footsteps. Her goal is to help them make the right decisions to blaze their paths through faith.

"And you know, the Bible says that God will restore the years that the locusts have eaten; the drugs, my bad choices. My bad thinking, you know, has taken a lot from me. But giving coming to God and giving him the pieces of my life and letting him, you know, just surrendering to Him, He has brought it back together, and he's made it stronger. And he's restored that time in a different way."

As Tampa Bay continues to attract new residents and businesses, the impact of living in paradise comes at a cost for all of us— from the increasing cost of housing and infrastructure to utilities and insurance. ABC Action News is committed to helping you and your family make the most of your money and navigate through the Price of Paradise.