Celebrating Five Years of LIFE
Reflecting on Mercy Corps Northwest’s life-skills education program for incarcerated women.
March 2012 marks the five-year anniversary for LIFE (Lifelong Information for Entrepreneurs). A first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, the 32-week program provides soon-to-be released women with the skills they need to succeed in today’s economy, whether as employees or entrepreneurs.
LIFE has now graduated over 100 women from its program in the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon. Most LIFE graduates have gone on to pursue regular employment, trade school, or community college after their release, while some have chosen to become self-employed. In addition, Mercy Corps Northwest (MCNW) has provided micro-loans to five of the LIFE graduates to start or expand their own businesses.
“Stable employment is key to reducing recidivism,” said John Haines, Executive Director of MCNW. “Even as incarceration rates continue to rise around the country, fewer than three percent of the women who completed the LIFE program have returned to prison.”
More than just business skills
While entrepreneurship training is one part of the program, the overarching goal is to prepare women for stable employment. The curriculum covers small business planning, as well as interpersonal skills that help prepare them for the workplace, including negotiation, effective communication and collaboration.
“I think the greatest contribution is giving the women hope and a reason to dream and plan for a better life,” reflects Doug Cooper, Assistant Director at MCNW. “In many ways, the steps that we teach for building a business are an allegory for constructing a new life.”
Over the past 5 years, LIFE has evolved to encompass a broadening range of life skills. In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Local Funding Partnership program provided a 4-year grant to MCNW and the Multnomah County Health Department to partner and enhance the LIFE curricula by drawing stronger connections between successful employment and health.
“New modules were created including nutrition and exercise, stress management, effective communication, and action planning,” says Alison Goldstein of Multnomah County Health Department, who co-teaches LIFE. “This work allows us to help incarcerated women think deliberately about their health and incorporate healthy behaviors as it relates to business development and successful employment.”
Many women participate in LIFE twice, but take leadership and mentorship roles the second time around to help guide their peers and to build self confidence. MCNW also connects them to resources at the Reentry Transition Center upon their release. This approach provides a continuum of support that addresses the root causes of recidivism.
“With a felony record, we need more resources to find a career that we love,” says Megan, a LIFE graduate. “I don’t even like to think about where I would be if I didn’t go through the LIFE program.”
Graduating from LIFE
Looking towards the future
LIFE is at an exciting crossroads. In early 2012, the program expanded to Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, WA. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced a three-year capacity building grant of $165,000 to further expand the LIFE program, as well as to extend MCNW’s small business loan program in Washington State.
“In the next three years, we anticipate being able to train 70 women in the LIFE program, with the goal that 25 percent of them will have steady employment one year after their release,” says Anthony Gromko, Washington Programs Manager for MCNW.
With ever-increasing reach and impact, the team of partners that deliver LIFE will face challenges down the road, but are confident about the efficacy of the program, and hopeful that the model will be adopted by other organizations to replicate across the country.
“We hear from the women that the class gives them hope to do something meaningful with their lives,” says Erica Strachan, co-teacher of LIFE. “Self-esteem and confidence are priceless assets, and we are helping these women to gain both.”
See the special on KPTV, aired March 18th, 2012
Special Thanks to Multnomah County Health Department
At the Multnomah County Health Department, we understand the connection between successful employment, health, and keeping people out of prisons/jails. Health starts where we live, learn, work, and play. People need work to be healthy AND people need good health to work.
What the Media are Saying about Mercy Corps Northwest
By Molly Young, The Oregonian
Kim Oanh Nguyen-van Zoen didn’t set out to start a company. She just wanted a unique way to display her photography at Portland’s First and Last Thursdays. Blank wooden panels were the answer.
Prompted by early success, she and husband Kjell van Zoen soon expanded the idea. Five years later, the company averages 500-plus panels every week, filling orders from artists, wholesalers and consumers hunting for an alternative to canvases and frames.
Plywerk Inc. mounts printed artwork and photos on bamboo and maple panels, cut to order in its shared woodshop space in inner Southeast Portland. Customers can upload their own images to the company’s website, a showcase of its funky personality. One of its pages, for instance, is simply a photo of kohlrabi, a purple root vegetable.
Plywerk’s art dots the walls throughout the home. Sales of the panels have doubled every year for the last three years, gaining orders from Kleen Kanteen, Keen Footwear, Nike, Salvation Army and the Oakland Zoo. Popular home blog Apartment Therapy has spotlighted the company, and a recent mention in Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine boosted its consumer sales vein by 30 percent.
“I knew it was a good idea as soon as Kim came up with it,” said Kjell van Zoen, who serves as chief executive.
To launch Plywerk, the couple secured lines of credit and a loan from MercyCorps Northwest that covered a panel saw and other capital costs. Then the recession hit, drying up other financing options. Lean manufacturing has helped the company weather the tight credit market, Kjell van Zoen said
“It’s really hard to find financing,” he said. “So you have to invest in yourself.”
- “3-D printers offer new opportunities for product design and small-run manufacturing”
by The Oregonian, October 31st, 2012
- “Mercy Corps Northwest expands micro loan program”
by Portland Business Journal, June 29th, 2012
- “Microenterprise loans create hope for unlikely entrepreneurs”
by Susan Coliton and William Vesneski, Portland Business Journal, June 15th, 2012
- “Program Helps Women In Prison Become Entrepreneurs”
by Patricia Murphy, KOUW 94.9FM, May 17th, 2012
- “Stanford students share the entrepreneurial spirit with women just out of prison”
by Brooke Donald, Stanford News, May 2nd, 2012
- “Spare a Quarter Mil? So you need a loan. Here’s how to get one.”
by Jonathan Frochtzwajg, Willamette Week, April 4th, 2012
- “Startup: Portland-based Plywerk builds a business, brand from bamboo panels”
by Molly Young, The Oregonian, March 27th, 2012
- “LIFE after prison: Class teaches skills for post-release success”
by Natalie Brand, KPTV Fox 12, March 15th, 2012
- “Acupuncturist gets start with Mercy Corps’ help”
by Molly Walker, Yamhill Valley News Register, December 18th, 2011
- “Small business lending in a tough environment: Q&A with the Small Business Development Center’s Rick Stone”
By Molly Young, The Oregonian, November 12th, 2011
- “Armchair Mayor: Katrina Scotto di Carlo”
By Bill McDonald, Neighborhood Notes, October 28th, 2011
- “Business Behind Bars”
Your Business: Education Nation, MSNBC, September 24th, 2011
- “SBA Awards Grants to Support Small Business Teaming”
MarketWatch, September 23rd, 2011
- “Agriculture programs help Northwest refugees settle in”
by Deena Prichep, Northwest News Network, September 15th, 2011
- “Interview with John Haines, Doug Cooper, Alverda McCoy & Felton Howard”
by Ann Schatz, Heart of the Matter, September 15th, 2011
- “Small business owners struggle to turn social media ‘likes’ into sales”
by Molly Young, Oregonian, September 3rd, 2011
- Interview with Community Outreach Coordinator Loren Guerriero
by Professor Lauri Smedley, Small Business H.E.L.P., August 16th, 2011
- About the Portland Grower’s Alliance
by Liz Crain, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland Blog, August 8th, 2011
- “Female Prison Inmates Trained To Start Businesses”
by Deena Prichep, National Public Radio, June 7th, 2011
- “Mercy Corps Northwest wins two SBA Awards: 2011 Women in Business Champion and 2011 Regional Award for Excellence & Innovation”
Small Business Administration Awards Dinner, May 12th, 2011
- “Five Microenterprise Organizations Selected for Scale Academy”
CSR Newswire, May 4th, 2011
- “Southeast Portland Garden Provides Income, Produce for Neighbors”
by John Chilson for Neighborhood Notes, May 19th, 2011
- “SBA Portland names small-business award winners”
The Oregonian, March 31st, 2011
- “Escuela Viva prepares students to learn through building positive attitudes”
El Hispanic News, February 4th, 2011
- “Pressed for success: Self-employed by necessity, a divorced mother of two says failure isn’t an option”
The Oregonian, February 6th, 2011
- “Hawthorne Boulevard artist aims to help other young creatives stick in Portland”
The Oregonian, December 7th, 2010
- “Two crowd-sourced books feature well-known local character: Portland; Peter Korchnak’s book debuts with Mercy Corps kickoff Wednesday”
The Oregonian, November 9th, 2010
- “John Haines, The Dream Life”
The Oregonian, November 12th, 2010
- “Mercy Corps Northwest Supports Initiative to Provide Marketing Services for Beginning and Refugee Farmers”
dBusinessNews, August 4, 2010
- “Some Loans Come With a Bonus of Training, Supervision”
The Columbian, by Libby Tucker, July 27, 2010
- “Health Clinic for the Uninsured Expands” The Columbian, June 10, 2010
Mercy Corps Northwest client Clinica de Salud Familiar expands its space to serve more clients.
- Mercy Corps Northwest ran a 4-page spread in the Oregonian on June 17
In it, we highlighted our connection to Mercy Corps and our work with urban farms, small businesses and prisoner reentry
- Mercy Corps Northwest was a community partner at the ReVisioning Value Conference | ReVV 2010: The Intersection of Purpose and Profit
- “Renting helps new farmers grow their businesses” The Oregonian, by Casey Parks, 4/17/2010
How farmers and organizations are renting land to cobble together urban farms, including MCNW’s farming initiative with immigrant and refugee farmers.
- “Mercy Corps Micro Loan Backs Chic-to-Chic Boutique Opening” The Hillsboro Argus, by Susan Gordanier, 4/6/2010
Stephanie McCulla’s clothing boutique in Forest Grove opened this month with the help of a micro loan from Mercy Corps Northwest.
- Portland’s KPTV news covers the opening of a MCNW client
- “Small Loans Can Fuel Big Dreams” The Portland Tribune, by Peter Korn, 1/7/2010
Microloans here and abroad, focusing on The Bike Commuter, a Sellwood area bike shop starting up with help from MCNW.
- “Portland Food Carts Push Through Recession” Oregon Business Magazine, by Lucy Burningham, 1/2010
Lucy Burningham (a MCNW IDA participant) writes about how Portland food carts are thriving in tough times, many of them with help from microlenders like Mercy Corps Northwest.
- “Food Carts Put Global Trend on the Menu” The Portland Tribune, by Peter Korn, 1/19/09
The global array of food carts in Portland, with mention of the MCNW funded Sugar Cube cart on N. Mississippi.