TULSA, Okla. — She can look herself in the mirror and like the woman she sees.
That’s because she and 15 other women are now Women in Recovery graduates, Jennifer Harris told the audience assembled for their graduation ceremony June 12.
Thanks to WIR, Harris and her peers avoided a total of 180 years in prison for non-violent offenses. Instead of likely returning to prison (Oklahoma leads the nation in incarcerating women), the graduates entered WIR, an intensive outpatient alternative to incarceration for those facing long prison sentences because of non-violent, drug-related offenses.
The graduates received job training, counseling, substance abuse treatment and other much needed services through the program to help them stay out of the justice system and remain productive members of society. They were honored at Family & Children’s Services WIR facility at 1055 S. Houston Ave.
“I will forever be grateful to the Women in Recovery staff, or as I call them, ‘The League of Extraordinary Women,’” Harris told the audience of WIR staff members, graduates’ loved ones and the program’s supporters. Her husband, on leave from Fort Sill, was in the audience, as was her mother, Barbara, herself a graduate of the program.
Many in the audience wiped away tears as Harris and other classmates spoke. Before she was accepted, she was in and out of legal trouble and failed treatment programs for more than a decade.
No treatment addressed the root cause of her addiction, she said during a later interview – trauma associated with the death of an infant son. The drugs doctors prescribed just kept her numb, and she ended up addicted.
That addiction touched off a spree of drug-related crimes in forgery, fraud, concealing stolen property and larceny. She had already served time with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and was facing more hard time when, as part of a plea agreement, she agreed to apply to WIR.
“I was a liar, a thief, a horrible mother and facing a 10-year prison sentence,” Harris told the graduation crowd. “I knew I wanted more for myself and my family. I wanted to be the mother and wife they deserved and could be proud of. But most of all, I wanted to be the woman I could stand to look at in the mirror.”
WIR works closely with the criminal justice system and other community partners to give its women the supervision they need, along with substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment and trauma treatment education, workforce training and family reunification to ensure they break the cycle of re-offending. More than a few WIR participants don’t pass its grueling curriculum. Harris did, though, and proudly told the crowd she’s been sober for almost two years, and has a career now as a chef. But those who do have a better chance at succeeding in life than they did before and a rediscovered sense of self-worth.
“You have pushed through the fears of what others have thought of you,” Mimi Tarrasch, WIR’s senior executive program director, told the women during a speech at the graduation. “Now, you know what you are made of, and what you were meant to be.”
Former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor was the keynote speaker – introduced by Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. To laughs from the crowd, she related a story of a trip to the Tulsa Children’s Museum with one of her grandchildren, and a potential trip down a tape tunnel that left her doubting in herself. Her grandson told her to use her “super girl powers.”
That got her thinking about what makes a superhero. She boiled it down to courage, humility, persistence and grit.
“As I thought about the journey of each of our women in recovery graduates, I said to myself, ‘You are my superheroes,” said Taylor, looking at the graduates as someone said “right on” in the audience. “You had the courage to say, ‘I’m going to change my life.’ Despite what might have seemed like insurmountable odds, you had the humility to say, ‘I will not be defined by my past. I will define my future.’
“You have had the persistence to move forward, even when things didn’t go exactly as planned – even when that curve in the road was a little bit more than you anticipated. And you had the grit to believe you could succeed, even though I bet there were voices often around you that didn’t want you to, and they tried to discourage you …”
“… I want you to put yourself in front of a mirror and see that superhero cape flying behind you. And remember: You have super powers. You can do anything.”
The women accepted flowers and their WIR diplomas from Bill Musseman, chief judge of Tulsa County’s criminal division, and Amy Santee, senior program officer with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Family and Children’s Services operates the program with funding from the foundation.
Tarrasch thanked district judges Musseman, Caroline Wall and Bill Kellough, and Kate Thomas, for her assistance with the night’s graduation, and Clary Sage College, which provided a makeover for each of the graduates that day.
The graduation was especially poignant for Harris.
Her mother struggled with drug addiction for much of her life. Seeing her graduate from WIR in 2013 helped Harris realize WIR could help her, too.
“She’s been a positive role model to me since then,” said Harris, as the audience filed out of the room after the ceremony ended, noting that last Christmas was the first she and her mother had spent together in 10 years. “Mom graduating just gave me enough courage to try it out and believe what the people in the program were telling me here. That’s all you need is a little bit of hope, and you can just grow from that.
“It’s so scary. It’s so hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do just to say that I’m a drug addict. My pride got in the way of that so much. Being honest with myself and other people, that took a lot of courage.”
F&CS also thanks WIR supporters including Kathy Taylor; Phil Frohlich, George Kaiser Family Foundation board member; Ken Levit, GKFF’s executive director; Rob Nigh, Tulsa County’s chief public defender; and Tammy Westcott, Tulsa County assistant district attorney. She also thanked WIR’s many community and business partners, including Tulsa County Court Services, Madonna House; Lindsey House; The Parent Child Center of Tulsa; Mental Health Association Oklahoma; The University of Tulsa; The University of Oklahoma; Zeeco Inc., and the many others who support WIR’s efforts.
Social and traditional media producer