Tarshea Sanderson served two-and-a-half years at Hernando Correctional Institution in Brooksville, Florida. Here she found Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP), a Miami nonprofit and Denise Moon Memorial Fund grantee that works with women prisoners to help them transition into a new life after they are released. Tarshea was mentored by LEAP and now owns a small business. She shared her story with us.

I first heard of LEAP while incarcerated at Hernando Correctional Institution. They came to recruit new people for their program, and though I wasn’t selected at first, that didn’t stop me. I went straight to the higher-ups and to the assistant warden to get a reason. This warden didn’t tolerate inmates approaching her, but I had to get her to understand that I needed this program.

I made my pitch, and I got on the LEAP transfer list. In fact, I was the only person from Hernando that was chosen for the program. I transferred to Homestead Correctional Institution where the LEAP program is held. On my first day, I met our main teacher, Ms. Johnson. She instilled in us a sense of belonging, trust and family. My favorite course was “Thinking for a Change,” which taught us to think before reacting in difficult situations, and that we shouldn’t let our past define us. Thanks to her, we came to see ourselves as people rather than the number assigned to us by the prison. We were human beings.

LEAP also brought in guest speakers. We learned how not to return to a life of addiction. Professionals in the community talked to us about helpful tools and skills like meditation, journaling and time management. Anthony Sadler, a phenomenal professor from the Barry University Andreas School of Business, taught us how to develop and write a business plan.

From the looks of it, all was going well. Then, the big day came … RELEASE DAY, February 28, 2016. “OMG! It’s finally here,” I thought. “I’m getting out of prison!”

The prison guard came to the room and announced, “Sanderson, they’re ready for you.”

I balled up my belongings and got out of there. People sent me well wishes as I exited from the housing areas. A swarm of butterflies flooded my stomach as I got to the release area. Frightened, anxious, and overwhelmed by the thought of freedom, I slowly changed out of the department of corrections-issued uniform and into the “free world” clothing that LEAP gave me. It took a while to get through the exit process and I grew more frightened by the minute. “What ifs” bombarded my mind.

Finally, I heard, “Sanderson, get out of here and don’t come back!”

Pictured above: Rebecca Brown (left) and Tarshea Sanderson, graduates of LEAP (Ladies Empowerment and Action Program), a Denise Moon grantee.

Vala Kodish, my LEAP mentor, and Kera Coates, my case manager, met me outside the gate. I was free! The outside world was challenging from the beginning. I went to a homeless shelter in Fort Lauderdale for an overnight stay. After being as comfortable as one could be in a prison, I was left to adjust to my new freedom with people who had the same issues I dealt with while incarcerated: addiction, alcoholism, depression and the like. Instead of being critical of them, I chose to bond with them and offer the same hope that was instilled in me, even if only for one night.

The next day, I transferred to another homeless shelter, Broward Outreach Center. This one had a Work First Program, which accepted me. Vala helped me get a job at Swago Custom Apparel. The job helped me gain the skills and knowledge to open my own business.

Staying in a homeless shelter reminded me of prison a bit with all the strict rules and regulations. I adjusted as best I could, and vowed to myself that I wouldn’t become “homeless minded.” Vala coached me through temptations and the tough stuff. And, 54 days after my release, I moved into my own place!

My days consisted of work and home. I made a conscious choice to continue to practice meditation and journaling on a daily basis, even when I didn’t feel like it. LEAP’s executive director, Mahlia Lindquist, introduced me to Transition, Inc., a nonprofit in Miami that provides job training and placement services for ex-offenders. Through Transition’s program, I ended up getting a position with LEAP as their assistant director of community engagement. I then learned about the Center for Social Change, where I now work. I’m also the house director for the Sacred House, which is a home where LEAP graduates can stay after they’re released, instead of going to a homeless shelter.

I’ve found that nothing comes easy, and if I want something, I must do whatever it takes to make my dreams a reality. In April of 2017, I became a small business owner. I used the skills I learned in LEAP to launch A Cleaning Queendom LLC, a full-service home and office cleaning company. I am grateful to LEAP and Center for Social Change for their opportunities, support and guidance. They always encourage me to be the best me that I can be. Situations do arise which challenge me, but I stay present each moment and always keep in mind that, “This too shall pass.”

Tarshea D. Sanderson is owner of A Cleaning Queendom LLC.

Editor’s Note: We are currently accepting proposals for the 2018 Denise Moon Memorial Fund grant program. Proposals are due by March 22nd.


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