Almost exactly a year ago I introduced you to a group of incarcerated women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. They were all participating in The If Project , a therapeutic rehabilitation program that starts with one question: If there was something that someone could have said or done that could have helped you, or prevented you, from the path that you were on, what would it have been?
Renata Abramson, who inadvertently created The If Project with Seattle Police Detective Kim Bogucki. Renata was serving eight years for firearms and drugs, but this wasn't her first time in prison.
"First time I think I hit the newspaper I was twelve for 30 burglaries in Santa Cruz and 30 in San Jose County, grand theft auto. Been to prison in California. I've done time in Nevada. I've been to prison twice in Washington."
Renata hated the police with a passion, but after starting The If Project, and realizing where her behavior came from and that she never wanted to come back to prison, she changed and she became great friends with Detective Bogucki.
"I love Kim. I mean, I didn't love her at first, but I love her now," Renata said.
On September 28, 2013 Renata was released. Kim took her to Walmart to pick up some necessities, which was quite daunting.
"I didn't realize there were so many different deodorants and products out there. At first I was excited but once I got there I didn't even care. I just had Kim pick out my deodorant."
Then the real struggles began. Who was going to give a lifelong felon housing and a job? The answer was South Seattle's Pioneer Human Services. For the past 50 years, Pioneer has housed and employed felons and people in recovery.
"They're all about second chances," said Renata. "I never knew there was something like this out here. I mean, they were happy I was a felon and that made me happy. I was like, you want me?"
Pioneer offers classes in job training and then employs some of those graduates in their manufacturing plant, making aerospace parts they sell to Boeing, which helps fund the program. Pioneer's Hilary Young talks about Renata's application.
"She checked the box 'I am a felon' and we were like, 'Yay! Come here, be with your people!' Because so many people here have a shared background. It's not just the manufacturing floor, it's across the organization. We have people in office positions and all these different positions that have that shared history and they can really relate. It starts to create a healthy sense of community. So many of our clients never had that. We really strive to be open and accepting and try to meet people where they're at.
Page Collins served a 12 year sentence for possession with intent to distribute.
"Five years ago I was released. Upon my release I walked into the halfway house in Tacoma. When I could get out in two weeks I walked straight down to the University of Phoenix and I enrolled in business management classes. I was only going to do a two year program but I am now going to graduate next March with my masters, my MBA."
But despite being a serious student, she still couldn't get a job.
"Once I walked into Pioneer I was like, 'I don't know anything about manufacturing, what makes you think I can do this?' She said, 'No, you've got it. I see it.' I said, 'Okay.' So I got on the floor. My 60 day point they put me on a full-time position in shipping and receiving. I went into expediting. I went into master scheduling. Six months of master scheduling, I am now the production supervisor of the manufacturing floor."
Page now supervises 65 other employees and plans on eventually opening her own dog training business. She credits Pioneer for giving her a chance.
"They helped me with my tuition. They seen things in me that I hadn't. They've all been my mentors. So having that alone is enough to be confident in yourself that you're more than you think you are. That's something that Pioneer does, they rebuild people that are broken and they give them their confidence back. They help you know that you're not a felon. You're a person and you deserve to be treated like a person."
Hopefully, someday soon, Renata will be as confident as Page, but right now she's in survival mode. She just working on the basics.
"My goals would be to have a good job where I love to get up every morning and go because I like to work," said Renata. "I'd like to eventually have my daughter come and live with me and money in the savings account."
But Renata is making a difference. Detective Bogucki takes her to schools, as a part of The If Project, to speak to kids, to share her story, to get to them before they make big mistakes.
"I like to tell the kids, 'Man, if that could have just been me. Kim's offering you this help. I just hope that they take it or that they take that into consideration because no one offered me that help."
"The kids aren't listening to police, teachers, parents, counselors but they listen to somebody that has been incarcerated," says Detective Bogucki. "They actually listen and we see them take action and ask for help. The voices from people that have been in prison are a huge part of the solution for reducing recidivism."
Between the If Project and Pioneer Human Services, people who have come out of prison are getting the chance to build beautiful, successful lives in our community.
"I've learned from Renata that people can change," Detective Bogucki said. "I've learned from this project that people can change because I definitely have changed."