Why We Give – SoulFisher
Why We Give – Grantee Profiles
Because giving is at the very heart of Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, we feel it is important to share stories about those who are most impacted by the generosity of our members.
This month, we hi ghlight The SoulFisher Ministries, a nonprofit working to respond to the needs of youth with incarcerated parents and to promote restorative justice for those currently and formerly incarcerated.
We hope you are inspired by these real life impact stories.
The first time Sasha went to prison, she was just 15.
At 15, while most girls her age were worrying about passing algebra and choosing the right dress for the spring formal, Sasha was facing a 15-year sentence in jail.
The crime she committed was part of an initiation into a gang, who had promised the teen the sense of family and belonging she so desperately needed in her life.
When Sasha got out of prison 13 years later, it was the first time she had faced the world as an adult. At 28, she had no driver’s license and had never held a job. Life outside the prison walls was strange, new and scary.
Within six months, Sasha found herself pregnant. And by 29, she found herself back in prison after a trusted family member convinced her to sell a package of drugs.
Sasha served five years in federal prison, but this time when she got out, she was ready to make a change.
“She got out and she decided to do something differently,” said Shawntelle Fisher, founder of The SoulFisher Ministries, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to responding to the needs of youth with incarcerated parents and promoting restorative justice for those currently and formerly incarcerated.
Sasha’s parole officer suggested that she connect with Fisher, whom she already knew.
Over the last four years, Sasha has become one of The SoulFisher Ministries’ greatest success stories.
“We supported her in every way that we could,” Fisher said. “She’s working and has a great job with great benefits.”
Sasha has given back to The SoulFisher Ministries too. She serves on the agency’s board and goes back into the prison to teach classes to other women. She also helps with chapel services.
“She fell down but she didn’t stay down,” Fisher said. “She’s doing great.”
A Founder’s Path Leads the Way
Fisher, 50, is the ideal mentor for women like Sasha because she’s traveled this road herself. She knows all too well how easy it is for young women to get lost in the cycle of recidivism.
“I became a teenage mom at 15, and was arrested at 17 for passing bad checks,” Fisher says.
Though Fisher was an exemplary student and had never committed a violent crime, she was encouraged by her public defender to take a plea bargain.
“They saw me more as a statistic as opposed to someone who just needed some support. My mom and dad didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system – they expected it to do what it was supposed to do,” Fisher said. “They thought, ‘If she takes a plea bargain then she can come home today.'”
But Fisher was then charged with multiple felonies – one for each bad check she wrote. What she and her parents didn’t understand at the time was that that plea bargain would ultimately set her on a course for ruin.
As a convicted felon, Fisher couldn’t find work. She also had a baby to feed. When she became desperate, she went back to what she knew would work – writing bad checks.
At 19, Fisher went to prison for violating her probation – again for writing a bad check. She served two years in a state prison.
When she got out, the cycle would repeat – she would try to live and care for herself and her child, but as a convicted felon, work was hard or impossible to come by. In desperation, she would write a bad check to survive. And then she would get sent back to prison.
“You face the same challenges, so you go back to what you know,” Fisher said. “I was stuck in a cycle of recidivism.”
In total, Fisher spent over 20 years in and out of state prisons.
An Inspiring Life Change
In 2006, the seventh and last time Fisher was incarcerated, she served two and a half years in a state prison and three years in a federal prison.
The day she went to prison for the last time, something changed.
According to Fisher, she was sick – sick of herself, sick of the life she’d been living, and sick of the choices she’d been making.
“I began to make a lot of changes while I was in prison,” Fisher said. “I started connecting with ministries and took a lot of self-help classes.
When I went to federal prison, I developed a GED tutoring program.”
While still in prison, she reached out to the communications director at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, who encouraged her to enroll once she got out. Fisher completed her associate’s degree there in one year and was named to the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
She won the All Missouri Academic Scholarship and used it to earn two bachelor’s degrees – one in education and another in media studies – at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
A professor there recommended her to Washington University where she received a full tuition fellowship and earned a master’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in divinity.
As she racked up academic accolades, Fisher also completed a class through Neighborhood Leadership Academy.
“Through that class I was able to identify what I could do and do well,” Fisher said. “I realized I could help women like me and students who have an incarcerated parent. I know firsthand some of the challenges and struggles. I had my family every time I came home from prison so I never had to worry about being homeless or having transportation. But that’s not the norm for many people that go to prison.”
In 2012, Fisher wrote the business proposal for The SoulFisher Ministries, with a goal to re-empower formerly incarcerated women to be productive influences in their family and community and to help break the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I wrote the business proposal and tucked it away,” Fisher said. “In January 2014, we got the 501c3, got my board together and hit the ground running.”
Today, TSM has two major programs – the Educate Now to Achieve Later (ENAL) After-School Tutoring Program and the Adult General Academic Program of Education (A.G.A.P.E.) Reentry Program.
ENAL Program Bolsters Education and Self-Esteem
The ENAL program provides STEM-based after school tutoring and enrichment to Kindergarten through eighth grade Riverview Gardens School District students who have an incarcerated parent or are performing two to three grade levels below grade level expectations.
Tutoring is provided five days a week in math, reading and English Language Arts. Enrichment opportunities include character educational classes, online coding, robotics, and science.
But perhaps even more important than the educational opportunities is the personal growth and improved self-esteem Fisher has seen in the students who have been in the program for several years.
“I rave on them all the time,” Fisher said. “They work hard and are ready for anything.”
The ENAL program also empowers the students to set meaningful goals for their education and career; establish positive adult relationship with the tutors and mentors; and engage their parents in their success.
AGAPE Empowers Women to Improve Their Lives
While ENAL focuses on the children, A.G.A.P.E. provides services for the women and includes both pre and post release programs through a partnership with the Missouri Department of Corrections.
“I reached out to them and asked if they would be interested or if I could be approved to come back in and they were like ‘absolutely,'” Fisher said. ” We offer financial literacy classes, career readiness and identity classes.”
In the identity class, TSM staff works with the women in prison to help them find their purpose and then set goals that align with that purpose.
“Anybody can take our classes in the prison – we’re all there is in terms of financial literacy and identity classes at the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo.,” Fisher said.
TSM classes provide incarcerated women the opportunity to participate in an alternative learning program through quality and compassionate classroom educational instruction.
One of the goals of the post-release program is to give formerly incarcerated women the educational and functional skills they need to reintegrate into society and regain control of their lives.
Once a TSM client has been released from prison, she may also have the option to live in Fisher Transitional Living, a transitional housing program, for one year.
The transitional living program offers free, mandatory educational opportunities for those lacking a high school diploma or GED. Individual and family counseling is available as is substance use treatment if needed.
“When they get out we provide the housing – either transitional housing or permanent supportive housing,” Fisher said.
Either through their own programs or through referrals to partner agencies like Dress for Success, TSM provides their clients with everything they need to get on their feet after release, including a cell phone, bus passes, clothes and medicine.
“We help them get their ID and birth certificate and help them gain access to health insurance,” Fisher said. “We’ve tried to remove every barrier to success. We have partners and employers where they can make a livable wage, so that they can live above the poverty line.”
TSM offers supportive housing for five women, to give women the chance to rebuild their lives. For the first six months, TSM pays for all expenses. Then over the course of the following six months, the client starts paying rent and utilities in gradually increasing increments until at
the end of the year, the client is living independently.
“They live there another year and half way through that second year, we will partner with Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, and begin working on building a home for the family that they will pay to live in,” Fisher said. “The rental supportive housing units that we get are in the same monthly rental range as the mortgage for Habitat.”
Thriving with SOS Support
In 2015, Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund provided The SoulFisher Ministries with a $10,000 grant. It was their first major grant, and helped open doors for the growing nonprofit.
In the 2018 grant cycle, SOS members awarded The SoulFisher Ministries another grant, this one for $18,000.
“Those funds were used to provide for two women in the supportive housing program,” Fisher said. “It paid for the rent and helping provide them with the wrap-around services like cell phones, medicine co-pays and bus passes.”
The SoulFisher Ministries just received another SOS grant in the 2019-2020 cycle. We’ll hear more about the great work they’re doing in forthcoming grantee profiles!
* Some names and details have been altered to protect the identity of clients.
Narrative developed for Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative. Photos provided by 618 Creative and The SoulFisher Ministries.