Sharon McAllister remembers the knot she felt in her stomach the first time she filled out a job application after she was freed from prison. She checked the box acknowledging she was a convicted felon, but wrote beside it, “I’d love to explain my story in an interview.”
McAllister isn’t alone in her desire to get the chance to fill in the details of a life derailed temporarily by incarceration. The struggle to transition from prisoner to productive citizen is rife with obstacles, and most of them circle back to rebuilding society’s confidence in them, and often times restoring it in themselves, too.
“We have to struggle to sell ourselves and build our self-esteem back up because where you come from, behind the gates, is very traumatic and very demeaning,” said McAllister, 50, whose five-year sentence for credit card fraud began in 2010.
She credits two organizations within the Newell community – the Center for Women and Newell Presbyterian Church’s mentor program – with helping her to regain both.
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The Center for Women, a 30-bed rehabilitation facility located off Old Concord Road, offers those with three years left on their sentences a chance to begin the process of assimilating back into society.
Programs within the facility teach financial budgeting, help find employment and housing, offer counseling to reunite families separated during incarceration and introduce mentors who share their same interests in the community.
The latter, said Myra Clark, executive director of the Center for Community Transitions, which operates the Center for Women, is one of the most crucial steps to have in place before release. “It’s learning how to create a different life, a new life,” she said. “It’s really, really important knowing that there people out there that you’re already connected with.”
For McAllister, that mentor is Freda Schlaman, from Newell Presbyterian Church. Schlaman signed on to be a mentor for the Center for Women nearly three years ago, and met McAllister shortly thereafter.
“It was an instant bond when it happened,” said Schlaman, a retired schoolteacher. “I can’t explain it, but she and I have been close ever since.”
Both women like to sew. For Schlaman it’s a hobby. For McAllister, who works as a seamstress for a local company that makes dance recital costumes, it’s a way to pay the rent.
It’s been a tough road for McAllister, and Schlaman has been there to help smooth out the ride. She’s picked McAllister up more than once when her car has broken down on the highway. She hosted a “getting out” party, inviting her friends to bring gift cards to help McAllister set up her home with towels and linens.
McAllister said she has a long way to get back on her feet. She’d like to someday own her own house. She’d like to make more money. She’d like to be able to purchase affordable healthcare. She’d also like to pay it forward to those who are behind her on the path to rehabilitation.
“Am I where I thought I would be now? No. But I know I’ll get there. As long as I keep making the right changes,” she said. “I do know that the woman I am today is the woman that I’ve always wanted to be.”
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Center for Women is at 5825 Old Concord Road, Charlotte. Information: 704-494-0001; www.centerforcommunitytransitions.org/center-for-women.php.