Celebrating Five Years of LIFE

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.

LIFELIFE 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.”

LIFE Classes in Prison

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.”

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