Before she turned 15, Celena had overdosed six times. By 18 Celena had been incarcerated due to drug issues. Experiencing homelessness, and convicted of creating, distributing, and consuming meth, the legal system “wanted to make an example of me,” she says. And not a good one.
“I was young and had gotten into some big trouble,” she recalls. “I never had any responsibility. I didn’t know how to grow up. I didn’t know what direction to go.”
The system should have waited to make an example of Celena. She is now a role model for the transformative power of work, responsibility, and self-respect. At 35, Celena is married, the mother of a six-year-old daughter, sober, and a chaplain who dedicates her life to ministering to women in drug recovery programs.
The turnaround came when Celena’s probation officer suggested Women’s Bean Project, a Colorado-based social enterprise supported by REDF. Women’s Bean Project addresses chronic unemployment, recidivism, and welfare dependency. Over six to nine months, women in the program earn a steady paycheck by making nourishing dry food products, while receiving support services including job readiness, interpersonal, and life skills they need to become self-sufficient in the workplace and community.
“The program became a major stepping stone in my life,” Celena says. In addition to work skills, Celena found the structure that had been missing all her life. As she puts it, “Women’s Bean Project gives you the tools: structure, responsibility, and job placement.” For the first time in her life, she says, “I was working toward something.”
At the same time Celena was earning a paycheck working in food production at Women’s Bean Project, she also got the support services she needed to enter the job market. These included an individualized “case plan” that addressed meeting Celena’s basic needs with housing, transportation, and health care. To build her life skills, and enhance her employability in the job market, Women’s Bean Project conducted weekly one-on-one mentoring sessions and classes in goal setting, budgeting, and empowerment, along with computer classes, mock job interviews, and resume building workshops.
“It’s a safe, caring, genuine, honest environment,” Celena says. When she made mistakes, she remembers, “They sit down and talk to you with care and respect. They have utmost respect for the participants.”
Today Celena works as a chaplain in Williston, North Dakota where she ministers to women who are incarcerated and helps them change their lives. Her message to them is not to give up. “They are fighting for their lives,” she says. “Doing recovery inside the justice system makes it hard to tell if you are having an impact.” But Celena has seen the women she works with return home, earn their GED and get off probation. “I can’t even count how many lives I’ve seen transformed.”