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Rebecca Brown knows the importance of having a mentor in prison.
Brown served nearly five years in jail and prison after her conviction on aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. The incident stemmed from a domestic violence case involving her former boyfriend.
She initially served at Lowell Correctional Institution near Ocala, the nation’s largest women’s prison, before being transferred to Homestead Correctional Institution. At Homestead, she learned about LEAP,(Ladies Empowerment & Action Program), a Miami nonprofit that works with women prisoners to help them transition into a new life after they leave prison.
“It warmed my heart that somebody cared enough about me to come visit me,” Brown said of her mentor, attorney Mahlia Lindquist. “There are little temptations when you get out, but if you have a mentor, you can go to them. They help you out and coach you through things, little things, that people overlook in their life. For someone that’s been incarcerated for a while, even getting help with technology makes a big difference.”
Today, Brown, who goes by the name Cafe Brown, has a job cooking at Camillus House, the downtown Miami shelter. She’s also active in her church, does yoga and sits on the board of LEAP.
“She has definitely embraced every opportunity, and has done 1,000 miles for every sliver of chance she recieves. That’s all her,” said Lindquist, who started as a LEAP volunteer and was so touched by mentoring Brown that she became LEAP’s executive director.
“I picked her up from prison, and it was almost like the joy of a baby being born,” Lindquist said. “She was reborn. She broke into song, we went out to eat and she told everybody who listened that she had just been released from prison.’’
Last month, LEAP opened its new Dragonfly Thrift boutique, which will hire women from the program to run the business. The new store will help fund LEAP.
Gemma M. Garcia, a co-founder and vice president of LEAP, said the program needs the community’s help to thrive.
“We need the community to embrace these women as they come out, and give them the opportunity, give them the job, rent them the apartment,” Garcia said. “We can prepare them as much as we want, but when they get out, if they don’t have an opportunity, nothing is going to change,” Garcia said. “The mind-set of the community has to change.”
Riverside House, too, is a nonprofit helping offenders prepare for life outside of confinement.
Riverside House was founded in the fall of 1973 as a joint project between Riverside United Methodist Church and the Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department.
Riverside focuses on a spiritual connection and a nondenominational approach.The group works with nonviolent offenders who are in their last six months of incarceration. The Florida Department of Corrections recommends inmates to the program. Riverside House is a community and residential program that has 120 rooms. Residents pay 25 percent of their gross income in rent, which helps offset the program costs.
Carey Kane, the development director at Riverside, said the spiritual component of the program is what gives people that extra support into leading a life outside of prison.
“I think because we are holistic is why we are successful,” she said. “For instance, there’s someone I’ve worked with that I can tell has had a hard life. She recently got a job and travels over an hour in public transportation to her job, but she has a great attitude and way of seeing life. You can tell she wants to do better for herself.”
John, a recent graduate who is from Miami, said his time at the facility has been essential for his growth. He recently secured a position at a restaurant in downtown Miami.
“During my time at Riverside House, I have been valued as an individual,’’ he said. “From that, I have learned to value myself once again. Riverside has saved not just my life, but my soul as well,” John said.