|SHAKOPEE — Seventeen years ago, Paul and Lori Strong—while engaged—were working in secular organizations, but they felt called by God to do something else; they just weren’t sure what.
“We realized there was just a hole somewhere, there was a gap somewhere,” Lori Strong recalled. “We didn’t know where; we just thought like there’s a gap or there is somebody who needed something that we had in terms of teaching parenting.”
Lori had been teaching parenting classes, and the couple had a contact at the Shakopee women’s prison.
“We went over there and interviewed with them and said, ‘We’d like to teach parenting here,’” Lori said. Prison officials told them, “We’ll try you out for six weeks and see how it goes.”
The couple founded the organization Parenting With Purpose and began teaching parenting classes together before splitting up their teaching duties: Paul taught at the men’s prison in Faribault and Lori continued to teach at Shakopee. While teaching the classes, they eventually realized “there is a whole family on the outside that was expecting people to come home the same way,” Lori said. “We needed to work with the family to say, ‘This is what’s different about them.’”
That realization led them to develop the Sister’s Keeper initiative under the Parenting With Purpose umbrella, which matches up mentors with inmates and helps inmates learn parenting skills while incarcerated and, more importantly, when they get out.
The mentor-inmate relationship involves emotional support, spiritual guidance, hope and encouragement and aims to help mothers assimilate back into society. Mentors also provide a listening ear and biblical counsel to the women in the program.
The programs are biblically based, although Lori said they do not preach the gospel.
“In that way, God has been very creative to reach people who would never come to church, never come to even a Christian parenting [class],” Lori said. “But they come because they want to learn how to be better moms and dads. Then we show them the love of God through creative ministry.”
The goal, ultimately, is to help the women stay out of prison and assist them as they become better mothers and family members.
“We’re very unconditional; we’re very non-judgmental,” Lori said. “The women pick up on that because in the prison system you are going to be judged because that’s what it’s designed for; you’re going to be corrected, people are going to be very tough on you, and they are going to look at your history. We’re a ministry; we don’t look at your history … we are just trying to be Jesus’ hands and feet to these women.”
Suzanne Richardson moved to the Twin Cities about four years ago from South Carolina. With a teaching and counseling background, Richardson was looking to get involved somewhere where she could utilize her skills. She met someone at church who knew Lori and knew that Lori was looking for someone to help with mentoring.
“I was only able to get a two-week pass to go in to [the prison to] help teach,” she said. “The fit was right.”
She now serves as a volunteer director for the Sister’s Keeper program.
In looking for potential mentors for the women, Richardson said first of all they need to be Christians. They also need to be “someone who is able to relate to the women and love them right where they are. If you cannot love someone right where they are, those women are going to know it in a minute.”
While in prison, the inmates have the opportunity to take up to 24 weeks of parenting classes. Since the waiting list to get a mentor is long, the inmates are introduced to the idea when they are within six months of their release.
“[Once they are matched], they are writing letters back and forth, getting to know each other that way,” Lori said. “There is a potential for them to come visit the lady in the prison, through a professional visit through our organization. When they get out, they are waiting for them.”
The mentors are available to take the women to lunch and to job interviews and to help them through tough areas as they get readjusted to life—and their families—outside of prison. Sister’s Keeper tries to match the personalities of the mentors with those they will mentor.
By mentoring women, Sister’s Keeper hopes to impact the entire family.
“That’s the exciting part for me … potentially being the catalyst for change of an entire family system,” Richardson said. “If you’re helping this woman in her life and the children are seeing a difference, the chances are pretty good they are not going to make the same mistakes.”
Richardson and Strong also believe that mentoring incarcerated women can oftentimes have just as much positive benefit on the mentor as on the prisoner.
“It’s not hard work,” Richardson said. “It’s loving and caring about people. It’s not a one-sided thing.”
Strong said, “If [potential mentors] step out and did something like this if they’re feeling God tugging on their heart, they’re going to grow probably even more than the women they are mentoring.”
ACTIONPOINT: For more information about Parenting With Purpose and its Sister’s Keeper program and how to volunteer, visit www.parentingwithpurpose.org, email email@example.com or call (763) 503-2892.