Local nonprofit helps women rebuild their lives after prison

The Connections for Life Thrift Store carries everything from amazing vintage clothing to 101 Dalmatians snow globes to plush, barely used black leather couches at absurdly low prices.

The store receives much of its stock through donations and is hailed by customers because of the sheer variety of items for sale. Shopping there is an adventure, a personal treasure hunt.

But most customers are unaware that with each dollar spent, they’re contributing to improving the lives of women trying to start over—women trying to have lives at all.

Connections for Life is a nonprofit that helps women leaving prison, treatment facilities and battered women’s shelters to develop a healthy lifestyle. Thrift store sales are the main source of funds keeping the nonprofit afloat, and its year-long program allows women to work there as store cashiers and assistants.

The program also offers food, clothing and shelter, as well as support groups, substance abuse meetings, education, individual counseling and assistance in finding housing and employment. Many women in the program are living on their own for the first time.

Karen Stagg. Photo by Collin Richie.
Karen Stagg. Photo by Collin Richie.

“There really are too few places for women leaving prison and coming back into the community,” says Karen Stagg, the program’s executive director. “Of course generally there are more incarcerated men, but at the same time there’s just not enough places for women to go.”

Stagg, who has been with the program for nine of its 16 years, meets the women while they’re still incarcerated. The day they’re released from prison, she picks them up, and they begin their 12-month journey.

Two store workers, Cortney Bradley and Jonelle Bourgeois, sit on black leather couches at the front of the store. One is in the program, the other a graduate of it, and they’ve both been through more in their young lives than anyone could imagine. They sit close together, leaning on one another for both physical and moral support as they speak with brave, brutally honest detail.

Bradley, a 27-year-old from Arkansas, talks first. Though her story is one of hardship, her outgoing personality and warm smile are on full display.

“I grew up in a very dysfunctional home,” she says, a twang in her voice. “No one tried to help me get into school, get good grades. Nine times out of 10 I was skipping school if I didn’t want to go.”

Her mother was hardly around. She’d been incarcerated most of Bradley’s life, and when she was around, she was always drunk or using hard drugs.

“I remember times of literally chasing her down the street because she was leaving, and I just wanted to be with her,” Bradley says. “She used to drink vodka, and she was so mean on vodka. I was like 3 or 4 years old, and she would bribe me saying, ‘Cortney, if you let me drink my vodka, I’ll buy you some wine coolers.’”

In her mother’s absence, Bradley’s grandparents had to raise her.

Her grandfather died the year after she graduated high school, and her life spiraled downward. She was drinking, getting high on pain pills and began using and selling meth. She went in and out of jail. Her grandmother died not long after. With nowhere to go, Bradley lived in the streets.

Then, she met a man and started cooking meth with him. She was 21 and had become pregnant. When she was last bonded out of jail, she never went to court. She started using again and was running from the cops.

“On the day of my due date, my bondsman came from Shreveport, where I had been locked up, and took me back,” she remembers.

Connections for Life, Karen Stagg in blue jean shirt, Courtney in white, Jonelle in black, 8.8.16
Cortney Bradley. Photo by Collin Richie.

Bradley gave birth to her son in jail. She was later released and he was taken from her the following year. Soon after she was arrested again, this time sent to prison in Tallulah, and she was miserable. She wanted to get sober but didn’t know how.

Then the prison director told her about Connections for Life and set up an interview with Stagg, who later accepted Bradley into the program.

At first, Bradley thought there was a motive behind Stagg’s kindness. Where she’s from, Bradley says, people just don’t do nice things. But she eventually grew to trust Stagg. Bradley graduated the program in 2012 and now works as program manager.

“This program saved my life,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I could ever amount to anything, and that’s what I had been told all my life.”

Jonelle Bourgeois, 38, sits to Bradley’s left on the thrift store couch. The Baton Rouge native is in her ninth month of the program. She’s more reserved than her co-worker, but she exudes a quiet strength as she waits to tell her own story.

“I had a pretty normal life,” Bourgeois says in a soft tone. “I graduated high school, went to college, got married and had three kids. But in 2006 I went through a divorce and got heavy into prescription drugs and drinking, which led me to jail for the first time three years ago.”

Broken and lost, she had surrounded herself with a destructive, drug-addicted crowd. Within two years after her first arrest, she wound up in prison for attempting to make and sell meth. She found out about Connections for Life and was accepted nine months ago when she was let out of prison.

As she approaches completion of the program, Bourgeois is planning a slumber party with her children, nieces and nephews.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” she says, beaming. “I have learned so much about myself. I’m learning to be independent. I don’t need prescription drugs to keep me focused. This [program] has been the best choice I’ve ever made in my life.”

Jonelle Bourgeois. Photo by Collin Richie.
Jonelle Bourgeois. Photo by Collin Richie.

As they sit today, they’re both sober and full of the light and hope they had once lost. Bradley is now married and is closer than ever to being able to be with her son, who lives in Arkansas. Bourgeois is on her way to having her children come live with her.

To outsiders, Connections for Life is a thrift store where you can find just about anything. But the women who work there have found so much more. It provides them with the stability of daily work life. It gives them a chance to be responsible, to prove to themselves they are capable, Bradley says. Stagg calls it a family.

“To watch a woman come from prison, then come into our program, it’s almost like watching a flower bloom,” Stagg says. “You see this person who is beaten down, with a broken spirit and low self-esteem, and then see her accomplish things for herself that she doesn’t think she can do. You see joy start to come from her.”

When the women first arrive, there is an unspoken understanding of what it’s like to live at your lowest point. After graduating from the Connections for Life program, there is an unspoken understanding of what it’s like to be reborn.