For years, Emily desired to join the Marines. But her life took a drastically different route. Could the Prison Fellowship Academy help her find her way?
As a child, Emily spent hours with her grandfather, reenacting scenes from his military career with G.I. Joes. She dreamt of the day when she would continue his legacy by becoming a Marine.
But Emily's life took a very different path. She was introduced to drugs early in life and grew up with a single mom in a family of seven who bonded over their shared drug addiction.
"We grew up as addicts," Emily says of her siblings. "That's all we knew in life—just to use. That's how we loved each other. That's how we spent time with each other."
She began selling drugs, using the money she earned to help support her mother and family. Eventually, her addiction and criminal activity caught up with her, and in her early 20s Emily was sent to Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee.
She served four years behind bars. "I'm not proud of it," Emily says, "But [prison has] only made me a better person."
When Emily arrived at Shakopee, she searched for community. "I wanted to be around like-minded women that wanted the same thing in life as me."
Emily found that community in the Prison Fellowship Academy®. She joined the program, which is voluntary and open to any prisoner who meets the programs requirements, within her first month behind bars. "I was in [the drug rehabilitation program] Teen Challenge prior to my incarceration," Emily shares. One of the women there recognized Emily's self-destructive behavior and warned her: "You might be going to prison. If you do, get into [the Academy] right away."
Located in select prisons across the country, the Academy takes men and women through a holistic life transformation. Using curriculum that is rooted in a biblical worldview, participants are guided by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
Emily enjoyed her time at the Academy so much that she participated in the program during her entire sentence; after she graduated from the year-long program she became a peer mentor to other incarcerated women in the program.
Every day at the Academy, Emily was inspired by the Academy staff and volunteers who dedicated so much of their time to the women they served. "They were people that I wanted in my life all along but never had as a kid," Emily explains. "They just wanted to love on me always; to help me out but not to enable me. They were just there to guide you … We need guidance in our lives by wiser women that have lived life."
BREAKING THE CYCLE
For many female prisoners, a lack of self-worth greatly impacts their inability to break the cycle of crime and incarceration. Emily has witnessed this firsthand, noting the differences between women who returned to Shakopee and those who were able to thrive in reentry.
This is why Prison Fellowship is dramatically expanding its ministry to incarcerated women. We want to help women replace addiction and despair with futures of hope and purpose through events, resources, and intensive programs that offer healing and transformation. The Academy is instrumental in this plan. The Academy at Shakopee encourages the women incarcerated there to see the beauty within themselves, to value their positive and unique qualities, and to share the positive characteristics they observed in the women around them.
"Every day in the morning we would affirm each other—and it was very hard to take at first. But the beautiful thing was that we got so used to it that it just kept uplifting us, and it equipped us that we are beautiful, righteous, holy saints."
Using positive affirmations to uplift one another is a habit that Emily strives to continue in her daily life outside prison. Yet she knows that it's not the validation or admiration of others that will ultimately fulfill her. She has found her identity in Christ, and now she relies on Him.
A SOLDIER FOR CHRIST
It wasn't easy adjusting to life after prison. Emily struggled to find her feet. Because her family continues to use drugs, she's had to put up firm boundaries between herself and them. Those boundaries may keep her safe from returning to her old lifestyle, but they come at a cost—loneliness.
Living on the outside, especially without the support of her family, seemed just too hard. But Emily remembered how God had been with her in prison. How He had delivered her from her addictions. How He had shown her how much He loved and valued her.
She turned to him for strength. "What's the point of living, God?" she cried out one day.
"To give Me the glory," He responded.
The first and most crucial step in changing and developing a lasting, intimate relationship with Jesus is the willingness to go—to step out of one’s comfort zone in search of something greater. Emily took that leap of faith with God, and today, life is good.
Emily works full-time for a local restaurant. She is also active in her church, serving as a Bible study leader and a greeter on Sunday mornings. Emily enjoys being a greeter because it gives her the opportunity to make everyone feel welcome and loved—like they belong.
Before Christ became the center of her life, Emily's unfulfilled dream of being a soldier left her feeling guilty. She believed she had failed her grandfather by not living up to her promise. But now she sees the dream is not lost; it's just been redirected. "I'm a soldier for Christ now."
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