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Tag Archives: Beyond Bars

Donna learns to tell her story

“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” ~ Brené Brown

Thank you for being a part of our Truth Be Told family! Your commitment to our work enables us to change the lives of incarcerated women, their families and their communities. We thank you for your generous contribution and encourage you to read the powerful statement of one of our graduates, so you can feel first-hand how your support impacts these women.

by Donna Norman

Almost five years ago, I was lost and broken. I was facing my freedom, and it was coming fast. I was so hurt and so angry with everyone and everything, but most of all myself. The choices I made cost me my freedom and the loss of everything that meant anything to me – including and most importantly, my children. I wasn’t ready for my freedom or to face the memories I had to go home to, memories I ran from for seven years. What if I made the same mistakes? What was my purpose going to be now? What did I really have to live for anymore?

donnanorman

Then I saw the posters for the Truth Be Told class. I even knew some of the people who had taken the previous class. Everyone loved it and talked about how it made them feel. I didn’t want to open up to strangers, but I was still facing going home with no answers and a broken heart. I thought that this might be my last chance, so I signed up.

I was touched by how loving the women of Truth Be Told were; I just wasn’t ready to let them in. I was in Ms. Nathalie’s class, so I had to give a speech on my story. I was dreading it and even thought about dropping out, but that would leave me with my broken heart.

I asked myself, “What did I really have to lose by telling my story?” So I started working on it, piece by piece. Surprisingly, I started understanding myself by looking in from a third party perspective.

Then the day came for my speech. Ms Nathalie brought some Toastmasters in to critique our speeches, and one of them happened to be her husband [Jim Walsh]. I wasn’t comfortable with a man being there while I was so vulnerable, but I had already come this far. I stood up and started telling my story, although it took every piece of strength I had.

Ms. Nathalie’s husband then had the honor of judging my speech, but I feared he was really judging me. I could feel the defiance boiling up inside me, not wanting to hear a man tell me I’m not good enough after hearing me talk about all the other men who have hurt me in every way possible.

But to my utter disbelief, he stood up in front of me, looked me dead in my eyes, and apologized for everything those other men had done.

Hearing that touched me deep down in my soul. The wall I built so strong to keep everyone else out shattered and the tears wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t being judged… I was being heard.

donnaquiltThat was when the healing began. Truth Be Told gave me my life back. They helped me understand why I made the decisions I made, not blaming others but understanding them. They helped me change my thinking and be a better, stronger person.

I have been home for four years now. I use the tools I learned from Truth Be Told in my everyday life. Although things are hard at times, I haven’t failed or given up, because of what the women of Truth Be Told have given me…my truth. We are a true community of women. In my times of weakness I reach out to them, and they never let me down. I keep my three-year quilt close. Anytime that I need to feel supported I wrap it around me and I see all their smiling faces.

The world needs more selfless people like the facilitators with Truth Be Told. They are my angels.

~~~

Thank you so much, Donna, for sharing your beautiful story, and thank you, Jim Walsh, for being the kind and loving man that you are.

Readers, we thought you might want to see a poster that Truth Be Told used to invite women in prison to learn about and sign up for Talk To Me classes.

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Hands make the world each day

writinghandsby Katie Ford

The image of his slender, ebony fingers writing words of support to Brenda brought the hot sting of tears to my eyes.

How different these hands are from the ones that used to touch Brenda.

I first met Brenda in prison in the fall of 2013 when she enrolled in the Talk to Me Writing class I was volunteer facilitating for Truth Be Told. She spoke very little and mostly kept to herself. I remember finding small joy in the moments she would make eye contact with me or offer a quick smile. Over eight weeks in Talk to Me, she and the other women in her class learned how to write and share the story of what they believe led them to prison.

In those same eight weeks, I was also learning.

I learned how hands can break bones and the human spirit.

I learned how hands can violate and reduce.

I learned how hands can leave scars undetectable to the eye.

I learned how hands can erect walls around the heart.

I learned how hands can pave roads to very dark places.

I learned how hands can self-inflict pain, because pain is most familiar.

I also learned — with certainty during that semester — that my hands are capable of holding space for sharing difficult truths. My hands can build a foundation for safe community. My hands can plant seeds of hope in soil long left unattended.

I witnessed Brenda and her fellow classmates using their hands to remove the masks that no longer felt true in their hearts and to unearth the wisdom in their stories. I witnessed Brenda letting go of what haunted her and gathering the courage to write new chapters in her life story.

At graduation, she took my breath away. In an unscripted moment, Brenda stepped up to the microphone and read a thank-you letter she had written to her classmates and me. I remember my heart knocking against my ribcage as she spoke. Here stood a woman who, only eight weeks before, admitted to me that she was learning to read and write and wasn’t sure she could participate in the class. Here stood a woman who, only eight weeks before, did not speak unless spoken to.

Here stood a woman who, only eight weeks before, was invisible to me but now stood before me as one of my greatest teachers.

Brenda helped me to see what I am capable of evoking in others. She ignited in me a fire that continues to burn. Through witnessing her journey, I gained clarity about the path I am to walk in my life.

So, last week, when I saw the image of those slender, ebony fingers writing words of support to Brenda, I broke down and cried.

Those hands belong to Edwin Medearis, a Truth Be Told board member. Edwin is one of many in Truth Be Told’s “beyond bars” community who signed a quilt made especially for Brenda, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in October and started chemotherapy in November.

Because of the choices she has made since being released from prison in 2014, Brenda has a very different kind of community surrounding her now. She is not alone as she fights the cancer that has spread to her lymph nodes. She has her Truth Be Told community, her church community, and her school community. She has people who uplift her, who remind her of how far she has come, who support her sobriety, and encourage the changes she wants to see in her life. She has people who will hold her hand, pray with her, laugh with her, and listen.

Yes, these are very different hands that touch Brenda’s life today, and she is the one who made it happen. She used the tools that were offered to her to create a life worth living … and now worth fighting for.

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Celebrating Strong Women, and the People Who Believe in Their Stories

On October 17, 2015 the board members, volunteers, and graduates of Truth Be Told came together in celebration of our community. Because no one can properly celebrate on an empty stomach, a light brunch was served — including coffee, juice, pastries, and breakfast tacos (in true Texan style).

The Journey Imperfect Faith Community graciously let us use their space for the event. It was just the perfect size for our little soiree, cozy but not crowded. As people milled in, the room filled with a positive energy that was palpable, and just as invigorating as the coffee.

Board Member and Facilitator Donna Snyder took on the additional role of MC for the affair. She kicked off the event with a warm introduction for the first speaker, the “heart and soul of our Beyond Bars program,” Director of Programs Carol Waid.

Carol told us about Karen, a Truth Be Told graduate that has written Carol enough letters from prison to fill a book. Literally. Karen plans for the letters to form the bulk of a book she’ll write called Against All Odds. The letters are especially beautiful, not only because of their written content but also because each is also a piece of original artwork. Karen drew incredible pictures on the backs of each page.

Karen was released from prison October 2014, and is still in touch with Carol. She jokes that she now has “high class problems,” like having to get up late at night to change her grandson’s diaper. Those are the kinds of problems we love for our graduates to have!

After Carol told Karen’s success story, Elizabeth, whom Donna called a “star graduate,” took to the podium to tell hers. Elizabeth signed up for the Truth Be Told public speaking class when a judge mandated she deliver speeches as part of the terms of her release.

Elizabeth said the class, “changed me, or it reminded me of who I’d always been. By the time I was done with their class, prison wasn’t a prison anymore. I was freer in my life than I’d ever been.”

Autumn Schwartz

Autumn Schwartz

Chair of the Board Autumn Schwartz then spoke about her introduction to Truth Be Told as an internal auditor. Autumn ended up falling in love with the organization, becoming a full time volunteer, and picking up the reins as passionate Chair of the Board in 2013. She expressed her excitement for the future of Truth Be Told and for those involved in the mission.

Following Autumn was graduate Sandra. Sandra’s been out of prison a little less than six months. She shared the story of how another graduate at the event, Rutanya, recently helped her find employment. How wonderful that our community could support Sandra in such a tangible way during her transition to life outside of prison!

Sandra

Sandra speaks to the audience

Next facilitators Sue Ellen Crossfield and Becky Deering spoke about how much they’ve gained from their experience teaching classes in prison. Becky told us teaching her classes each week gives her strength; the women inspire her. Sue said, “The women who have been inside tell us how much we give them, but it’s really them who give so much to us.”

Sue Ellen

Sue Ellen

Donor and Mentor Margaret Kahn was the last official speaker — though her mentee, Dara, jumped in with heartwarming words of love from the audience. Margaret talked about how she met Dara, and how their relationship has strengthened and changed them both over the years.

In summation Margaret said, “This is the most powerful thing I have ever done in my life.”

The event closed with a community circle honoring Co-Founder Nathalie Sorrell, who retires from facilitating this year. Nathalie will remain a strong advocate for the cause — and will always remain in the thoughts and our hearts of the people she’s touched within our community. Everyone held hands around Nathalie and shared impressions the days’ stories had left with them. There were smiles, some tears, and lots of laughter.

We said our goodbyes, and though we left in separate cars, we left as a strengthened community, excited to look down the road ahead.

A Road to Recovery

252128_2110746080709_1007330243_32397622_730538_nCarol Waid is one of the founders of Truth Be Told and serves as our Director of Programs. She says that connecting with our graduates when they are released and participating in our Beyond Bars Program is the work reward that makes her heart sing. After an early morning check-in call with a graduate, she shared what determination and success look like.

Seven months ago, Tara was released from the Lockhart Unit. This morning she set her alarm so that she could check in with me before 8:00 a.m. When she was in our prison classes, she was loyal, dedicated, enthusiastic, willing, hard-working and determined. She graduated from both Let’s Get Real and TTM Writing. In Let’s Get Real, I give certificates for perfect attendance and Tara set her mind to getting that certificate. One day, she came to class with a fever (which I don’t recommend) and another day, with her jaw bulging from a tooth ache when she wasn’t able to say much more than, “I am here.” My heart aches and my tummy rolls when I think about how she did that.

Before being released, Tara made the decision to set boundaries with her abusive husband. He was also incarcerated and she let him know she would not stay in her violent marriage. Her poem below, Letter From My Wise Self, that she wrote as one of the TTM Discovery exercises expresses that she came to know who she is and what she wants out of life. Tara’s soon to be ex-husband has been released and she has continued to keep her boundaries. This is so huge!

photo 2Since her release, Tara has been living with a woman who gave her a safe place until she can go back to her home state. She hasn’t seen her mother and son since 2010, but her parole officer just gave her permission to go home for five days at Thanksgiving. She is so excited! She talks to her mom several times a day and she always reminds Tara to connect with her support system. At the end of our conversation she said, “I will talk to mom later and tell her that I checked in with you.” This made me smile and it’s one of the reasons that TBT’s Beyond Bars is important to all of us.

Tara’s personal transformation was internal but she is demonstrating it by her accomplishments:

  • She has been working at McDonald’s since June and got a raise after three days.
  • She was employee of the month and was given a $25 gift certificate.
  • She likes working long hours because she has made enough to pay rent and still send some to her son.
  • Tara is active in her Narcotics Anonymous group.
  • Her parole officer has removed her “high-risk” status and is considering her for early release. He says she is the “poster child” for how to be a parolee.

Tara has checked in with me six times to fill me in on how she is doing and fulfill her commitment to our Beyond Bars Program. Just like her perfect attendance, she now has her sight on the quilt that she will receive after three years of being released, not reoffending, and staying in touch.

I asked her how it felt to be the employee of month. “It felt deserved. I have worked hard to prove myself. The other employees, well they can find jobs a dime a dozen, but with my background I have to prove myself. I love my job, where I work the night shift.”

My morning has been blessed by Tara. I love it when these calls come in to remind me of the importance of our work, but also how important it is for our graduates to have beyond bars emotional support. Cheerleading is awesome!

Letter From My Wise Self

You have come a long way from where you use to be.

You know now not to let men abuse you.

You have come very wise to this.

So you know not to go back.

You know now you can be a leader, not a follower.

You have come wise to this.

You know things are going to be different for you now.

You have come wise to this.

You know you will be accepted in life.

You have come wise to this.

In all in all, you are a very wise lady.

Don’t ever forget that.

Food Trucks Give a New Future to the Formerly Incarcerated

Posted on

A high school English teacher quit her job to run a food truck. But this isn’t an ordinary one, reports Upworthy.

What if we could help people who have been released from prison actually stay out of prison?

Jordyn Lexton, founder of a nonprofit called DriveChange, used to teach high school English to incarcerated 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds — all of whom were convicted as adults — at Rikers Island in New York. When she saw how bleak the future looked for them once they were released from prison, she decided to do something about it.

She left teaching behind and started the nonprofit. What makes the organization special is that it hires formerly incarcerated youth to operate the trucks, giving them an opportunity to earn money and gain job skills. Both of these things help keep people who have been incarcerated from returning to prison.

The Snowday food truck, Drive Change’s first, makes $15,000 a month.

The profits are put right back into Drive Change, which hopes to expand its operations to help more people. Drive Change’s eight employees, all of whom start at $11 an hour, operate the truck, selling food inspired by maple syrup. (Yum!)

Awesome, right?! This is a case of someone seeing a problem, coming up with a solution, and taking action.

“Our plan is hopefully to make this a national model … because unfortunately, there is not a shortage of formerly incarcerated youth across the country.”
— Drive Change head chef Roy Waterman

Read the entire Upworthy story here, or watch the video below to see how Drive Change is making a difference.

Truth Be Told Spring Semester Graduations

Please join us as a respectful witness to a prison graduation. At the end of the fall and spring semesters we take about 20 guests into the prisons to serve as an audience of respectful listeners. It is so meaningful to the women who are graduating that a group from the “free world” spends the time to hear their stories and appreciate their performances. It is a powerful experience that gives attendees a glimpse of our behind bars programs and the lives of incarcerated women.

We need more attendees for both of our June graduations. Please respond by May 1, 2015 to Carol Waid at office@truth-be-told.org or 512-292-6200.

  • June 4: Graduation at the Lane Murray Facility in Gatesville. We leave Austin in a carpool caravan at 2 p.m. and arrive home at about 10:30 p.m. Please forward this to anyone you know in the Temple, Killeen, Waco, Gatesville area to help us grow our volunteer base there.
  • June 5: Discovery Graduation at Lockhart. We meet in Lockhart at noon for a barbecue lunch and are back in Austin around 5:30.

Feel free to forward this to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about our programs.

The Participants’ Feedback

305890_10150343354189679_367013015_nKatie Ford has been facilitating the Talk to Me Circle class for the last five years. Towards the end of the eight-week class, she asked, “As a volunteer who comes to the prison for two hours once a week, I know my view of prison life is limited. I’ve always wondered what it feels like to enter and leave our classroom. How ‘big’ is the transition? How does it feel to do what we do in here (expressing our emotions and sometimes they are very strong emotions) and then to go back?”

The women responded with the following:

  • I feel free in here.
  • I never want to leave this class. I hate when it ends.
  • I look forward to this class because I can think in here. Out there it’s always so noisy you can’t even hear yourself think.
  • I am able to cry in here.
  • It’s exhausting. My friends tell me I look tired and I tell them it’s because I just came from this class.
  • I can breathe in here.
  • This class is a highlight of my day. It’s like when I get mail.
  • I have a private face and a public face. They’re not dramatically different, but they are not the same. I wear my public face out there. I can wear my private face in here.

Often the women tell us that our programs are different from other programs. One women expressed:

“Y’all let us heal ourselves instead of telling us we need to heal.” Then another said: “Yeah, we don’t like it when people come in here and start telling us what they think we need.”

Special Graduation for Nathalie

IMG_0292On April 17, Nathalie Sorrell joined a group attending the Talk To Me graduation at Lockhart and came full circle from fifteen years ago. In February 2000, Nathalie stepped into the Lockhart facility to begin a program called Telling Your Story. She advertised this program on a handmade poster that offered to guide the women through a process to share their story with juveniles in an effort to prevent the juveniles from following in their footsteps.

This program was effective and the probation officers reported that the youth spoke about the impact on their way back to their facility. However, the program was cut within a year, because of changes in the TDCJ system. But the Warden supported the program and asked that we find another audience to support the women and their stories.

The participants of the new class named the program “Talk to Me.” We now have Talk to Me Speaking, Talk to Me Circle and Talk to Me Movement – offering three modalities of the curriculum. Each semester brings a different group of faces, but the same longings…women wanting to be seen, to be heard, and to be loved. We witness courage and bravery as each participant shares the vulnerable story of her journey that led her to incarceration.

On April 17, Nathalie came full circle as a respectful witness. She shared that she had no idea that her first tentative steps would lead to fifteen years of programs that are now offered in five facilities. One woman’s journey has sparked a transformation in many facilitators and participants. We are grateful when the women in our programs share why the programs are important to them and that this work continues to make a difference.

The Oxygen of Inspiration

by Kathleen Littlepage

Kathleen Littlepage

Kathleen Littlepage

We are at the end of a month of fundraising efforts for Truth Be Told and some of us get worn down by the energy it takes. I could try to hide this truth about myself, but that would belie our belief that the truth is always important and there are no “perfect people” only people who are traveling the path of personal growth. When Carol and I get tired, we seek out what Carol calls the “oxygen of inspiration” and we don’t have to look far for that. Here are some stories that remind us what a difference our programs make. I invite you to share our inspiration and remember that Amplify Austin ends at 6:00 p.m. Friday, March 6, but our work to support incarcerated women continues.

Inspired Quilts

11004817_672572826205046_1759662122_nCarol’s parents, Doyle and Peggy Chandler, lovingly make and donate a quilt for each program graduate who stays involved with our Beyond Bars activities for three years after being released. Some of Peggy’s beautiful designs come to her in dreams and recipients often express how the quilt she received is perfect for her. Sending or delivering those quilts is Carol’s most joyous job responsibility. Carol mailed quilt number 42 to Donna (learn more about her story) and got this response: “When I got home last night, I had the best surprise on my door step….MY 3 YEAR QUILT! I’ve waited for this day since I first walked into my Truth Be Told class. It means so much to me because it is a symbol of how far I have come and all the accomplishments I have made in the three years since I’ve been home. But most of all it is a symbol of the love and dedication and support of Truth Be Told. Since the first day I walked into class, they have wrapped me up in their love and support and have stood by my side helping me find myself and guiding me every step of the way. So receiving this quilt is perfect because as I wrap it around myself, I feel them wrapping me in one of their famous hugs. I can feel their love and support as if they are right here with me.” Right before Willa received quilt number 41, she said, “Ms. Carol it’s 5 days until my 3 year mark. I have held on to the memory of that quilt. I think about your momma and your daddy making those quilts and I say ‘girl, I am gonna get me one of those quilts’. Ms. Carol it’s real hard out here, but I don’t even turn my head wrong.” Willa always finds a way to stay connected even though she regularly has a different phone number and has been living without electricity for three months.

Each Other’s Miracle

Katie, a longtime facilitator at Lockhart prison, wrote in her blog, La Querencia, about a woman who helped out a classmate and how it affected them and everyone else.

“All of us in the room could feel it. We felt proud of Stephanie, compassion for Jessica and honored to have witnessed it all. We were a circle of women who had, inside a prison, successfully built a community of trust, of love, of compassion, of authenticity, of truth, of integrity, of hope, of healing, of new beginning.”

Read her story.

In Their Words

Karen Cantrell Jan 2014Karen was released October 30th, 2014 and contacted Truth Be Told three days later. She shared why Truth Be Told classes are important: “The principles, the ideas, the creativity, the events, the listening, and most of all the being seen, heard and loved. These things spread throughout generations. The people that y’all touch on the inside, we take it home with us and we take it to our church, to our family and friends, to AA meetings, and everyone we meet benefits. I look at people differently now. I am better able to listen and have compassion for others. It changes lives more than you can even dream.” After 15 years in prison, Monica was released July 2, 2013. She regularly checks in to share:

“I am doing good and I am staying out of trouble.” She says, “I found Truth Be Told so that I could find the real me.”

Kasey has been free for less than three months. “Prison is not a place to rehabilitate, it teaches you to be a better criminal. When I joined Talk To Me Circle, that was my first step into recovering.” Kasey was incarcerated at 22 and released at 27. “I grew up in prison.” Upon her release, Kasey chose to live in a home where she knows no one, “changing people, places and things.” The hardest things for her have been not seeing her twins at first and watching her father’s funeral on a video because she was in prison when he passed away. Because Kasey learned the importance of sharing your story in her Truth Be Told class, she already has spoken at a local jail and to a 4H group. You can donate to a graduate’s Amplify fundraising page Cara, Dara, Kimberly, Kay.

Karen CantrellMay2013