Meet Bev Dwyer, former Grand Valley Institution for Women book club member and founder of The Second Chance Foundation, a non-profit organization starting this spring that will support women coming out of prison. The Second Chance Foundation will assist women by providing them with employment and educational training, counselling, and a "second chance without any judgement."
Sophia Reuss (SR): Why did you start The Second Chance Foundation?
Bev Dwyer (BD): It’s been a long road actually. I first started envisioning this back in 2014 after my release and my six month stay at a halfway house. That’s where I realized that our system is so severely broken: we have a halfway house that is supposed to be helping these women reintegrate back into society, and it does nothing of the sort.
SR: What sorts of barriers do women face after incarceration?
BD: So many women [in halfway houses] end up going back to prison. Because you’re constantly undermined, you’re constantly beaten down, there is no reintegration help. The quasi-counselling that they give leaves a lot to be desired. People there are harming themselves, people are doing all kinds of stuff.
[In prison and the halfway house,] I’ve met people who have never finished high school, I’ve also met people who have more than one degree. I’ve met people who speak seven languages. Now, many of these women, after speaking with them on the inside and out, I found out that some of them have been on the road living on their own since they were 11. I can’t even envision that, or wrap my head around that. 11 years old. Doing drugs, surviving any way they can. I have spoken to girls 17 and 18 years old who were just glad that they were in prison at that point in time because it meant that they had somewhere to sleep. I’ve spoken to women who have been so severely abused. The psyche has been so badly damaged that by the time they get to this point where they’re committing crimes to be in prison, they’re just broken. Does that excuse the crime? No. But for these people, for whatever the situation is: you can hate the crime without hating the person.
You have these women who go to prison, they sit there, and they’re warehoused. A lot of them, over time, end up with mental health issues. I would walk through the prison and see these women walking around like zombies, because they go into prison and you have psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses there that are supposed to be dealing with these women, counsellors, but they don’t. They keep them drugged.
So finally, they come out and go to a halfway house. Depending on which halfway house you go to, you have to stay in for the first 24 hours, in some it’s 48 hours, to be processed. After you’re processed they say “okay, take some time to settle in,” but that time is usually just about 2 days. And then you’re told “go be productive.”
Being productive means go get a job, go back to school. But the way how the system is set up is such that on any employment application, [you’re asked if you] have you ever been committed of a crime. Once the employer sees that, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have or how educated you are, you still have “criminal” printed on your back. That’s a stigma that people can’t overcome. The halfway house is usually connected with a temporary employment agency that ships these women through, but once they leave the halfway house they have nowhere to go. A lot of them have mental illness that prevents them from getting a job or going back to school, and they end up back in prison. I could sit here and tell you more. The list goes on and on and on.
SR: What was your experience with the system?
BD: Coming from my background, being pro-social, educated, experienced, having a job prior to all of this; I look around and see that I had a difficult time functioning, and if I had a difficult time functioning, what about these women who don’t have an education, have never held a job, aren’t pro-social? Around 80 per cent of the women have experience with drug or alcohol abuse, and 70 to 80 per cent of them have come out of abusive relationships. It just goes on and on and on.
I’m there and I’m seeing people getting sent back, I’ve had people break down and cry because of what they’re not getting, what they’re being put through, the demands placed on them. It was horrible, it was really bad. I started talking to them, was being an ear for them, a shoulder to cry on. That angered my parole officer, who also turned around and sent me back to Grand Valley for another six months.
When you’re on parole, you’re still in prison. A parole officer doesn’t need proof to do anything, they just need suspicion. If they believe that I am working in any adverse manner to undermine them or the system, they can do whatever they choose to. And that’s just the way it is. Fortunately for me, my time [back at Grand Valley Institution for Women] was very short; I ended up being there for six months. There are people who end up going back for a year, two years, before they can even apply for parole again to come back out.
That it did a number on me, it took me a while to recoup. And then, dealing with the devastating stroke that my mother had, and me being her primary caregiver and all of that. [But] it has reinforced my resolve, it has made me stronger, it has made me a little bit more weary. But all it does is add to my resume, basically. The way I look at it is: in order for me to go out there and try to help these women, I had to go through the fire as well, so I can relate to not everything, but I understand. By understanding, I also can empathize.
SR: What are your hopes and dreams for the The Second Chance Foundation?
BD: I was finally able to scrape enough money together and get [The Second Chance Foundation] going, pulled in a few people, and they’re all ex-inmates. Because this is the demographic were going after. And so we’ve come together and now we’ve finally gotten a location and we’re moving on from there.
My goal is, as these women come out, to meet with them, talk with them, let them know we’re here to help them. My ultimate goal is to be able to help direct them to whatever avenue they want to go into: getting their GED, going back to college or university, employment training. Then, the big thing is: everyone is talking about getting a job, getting a job, getting a job. Nobody is talking about entrepreneurship. I’ve met some women who are so gifted. No one has ever asked them to expound on their natural gifts. It’s not all about getting a job. Sometimes, it’s about doing your own thing, whether that is a simple thing like sewing even. I’ve seen some women make quilts that you would die for. We have women who are natural organizers. There are women that can do things, and can be taught how to turn these things into something that they can make a living from, and a lot of these things they can do from home. We want to expound on that. And cooking — there are some phenomenal cooks and bakers. We want to build on that. There’s such a vast array of things.
I also want to reach out to other employers, do seminars, and bring employers in that are willing to take these women on, to mentor them, train them, and are also willing to even hire them, to look past their crime, because they’ve done their time. And have been “rehabilitated” as per the system, and now they want an opportunity. This opportunity is so badly needed, especially because 90 per cent of the women in prison have children. A lot of the children are in the system as well. When you leave prison, you have to hold a job down for at least a year, you have to show that you have proper and safe housing to accommodate your children, to be able to support your children, before your children are given back to you. Most of these women can’t do that.
Do you see the vicious cycle? I just want to take a link out of that vicious cycle and step in, and just try.
SR: How will The Second Chance Foundation take a link out of that vicious cycle?
The first aspect of The Second Chance Foundation (and we’re trying to be self-sufficient) is setting up our thrift shop. Now that we’ve secured our location, we’re going out to solicit for clothing, housewares, toys, accessories, anything to sell. We’ve already started. We’re also asking for people to donate things like clothes racks to use in the store, cash registers, clothing bins, things like that. It’s a lot of work that we have to do within the next month. We’re trying to open for the end of April.
We want to run the thrift store exclusively with women coming out of prison. We’ll train them, and they can work in the store and get the experience, then we can give them references and they can move on to another job. We want to bring women in to do office work, so we can train them on inventory, we can train them on simple book-keeping, on payables and receivables. Hopefully with our training, and we’re looking at about four months for each placement, we can again move them on. And if, based on that training, they feel like they want to do more they can go back to school. We’re eventually hoping to fund some of these women who want to go back to school. It’s a lot, and it’s ambitious.
Once the thrift shop takes off (the first part of our location is the thrift shop, and right now the back part of the location will be the offices where we’re going to be meeting the women) and as we progress, we’re hoping that we can get a location that houses strictly the other aspect of our organization: where life-skills training, employment training, counselling, seminars, everything else takes place.
We eventually also want to be soliciting the colleges and universities that are willing to work with us and get some of their final year students in Social Work and all those related programs who have to do a volunteer position or placement to help us work with the women.
We’re just trusting; everybody is psyched. We’re trying to do this without any government help, or subsidies, or grants -- or anything! We’re just a bunch of women trying to do the impossible. Or, in other words, make the impossible possible. That’s all we’re trying to do.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
The Second Chance Foundation is currently accepting donations for their thrift store! For more information about donating, please email Sophia Reuss [firstname.lastname@example.org] and to learn more about the Second Chance Foundation, check out their website!