Nothing can keep Sheena from helping others. Not even a felony.
The day that I stood before the judge here in Guilford County in 1985, I also stood before our Almighty Judge, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I was a single parent, living with my mom. The truth is, I hadn't been a good steward of my money. So, when someone asked if I wanted to make some money on the side, I said sure. This other guy had done it for almost 30 years and never got caught.
But it was fraud, and I knew that I was guilty. Ready to accept my punishment because I did wrong, I went through the whole thing of fingerprinting and getting my photograph taken. I ended up with a five-year suspended sentence with probation.
I never had prison or jail time, but I did have to visit a women's prison facility to see a little bit of what I would have had to experience. And I thank God that I didn't have to. My son was about 9 years old. If I had gone to prison, I would have missed his teenage years.
The judge had mercy on me that day in the courtroom and gave me another chance. And that is why I do what I do today.
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Even though I never went to prison, I still had a criminal record. That made it hard to find a job. I got through several interviews with one company that offered me the job and gave me the start date. I had sent them my files—I was honest about my criminal past—and I thought I must be in the clear.
At the last minute, I got a large envelope from their head office saying, "Ms. Beasley, we don't hire felons."
I was very shocked. I did exactly what the judge and probation officer had ordered me to do, getting permission to travel and see family and whatnot. By this time, I had even paid off my restitution! My probation officer recommended my early release from probation.
But on paper, I still had that felony. My past could impact everything, from getting a decent job to finding a place to live. And, because I still had bills to pay, I had to take what I could get.
What I didn't realize was that a seed was being planted for something much bigger than myself. In the midst of my struggles, the Holy Spirit said to me, "I've got a vision for your life."
That vision became The Almond Connection (TAC), which I founded in 2016 to serve returning citizens. TAC is a nonprofit organization connecting people who have gone through the justice system to job training, employment, housing, healthcare, education, counseling, legal support, social services, food, and clothing.
Then, I was searching Google for information about second chances, and I came across Prison Fellowship®. As I was reading the website, I realized we shared some of the same goals for helping people be restored. The organization was so well spoken of and nationally known. And it excited me that they were going into prisons, as well as serving families on the outside. I thought, I want to be a part of that.
Even as a young girl, I helped take care of people—my grandmother, my seven siblings. I was the one my mother trusted to take care of business when she wasn't around, so I've always been a "helper." I really do believe that I am my brother's keeper. Then, when I experienced the stigma of having a criminal record, I wondered how other people would be able to make it.
THE VOICE OF AN ADVOCATE
So many barriers stand in the way when you return home to your community with a criminal record. It's why I believe in reentry organizations like The Almond Connection. It's why as a Justice Ambassador, I am speaking up, sending letters, and engaging with lawmakers to help bring about change.
Recently, I had an opportunity to share my story in an opinion piece for the Greensboro News and Record. In it, I called on Sen. Thom Tillis to support the EQUAL Act. This legislation would end the 18 to 1 sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
After the newspaper ran the piece, I got a phone call from Sen. Tillis' office. They told me that the senator would be endorsing the EQUAL Act. And, not only that—Sen. Tillis said the op-ed was instrumental in his decision to sign on as a co-sponsor! Then, they asked if I would schedule a time to meet and continue the conversation.
I was shocked and overjoyed. Next, I reached out to the staff at Prison Fellowship to help prepare me with the talking points and resources I would need. Without that, I would be really intimidated. Like, Oh, what do I say? But Prison Fellowship was there every step of the way to answer my questions and equip me to advocate.
'A FORCE FOR CHANGE'
Now, I’m building rapport with this U.S. senator's office like I never imagined before. In some ways, it seems like he and I couldn't be more different. For one thing, I'm a Black woman with a criminal record. But I so believe in the work he is doing with criminal justice reform. We have similar goals to see people treated fairly, in prison and out.
I am humbled and excited to have a seat at the table, to have the attention of lawmakers, and to have a voice. And I'm ready to be a force for change. I want to be knowledgeable enough so that when I do go before them, I can be confident in what I have to say. I can't wait to continue speaking up for justice that restores.
Without Prison Fellowship, I don't think I would be as vocal as I am now. And I give all praise, honor, and glory to the Lord, because it's not me. It's the Spirit that's within me. I was given chance after chance, and I thank God that He didn't leave me in darkness. If He could do that for me, I know He can do it for others.
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