By Brenna Kelley and John Acosta / NM News Port
“I just want to live a sober life, away from drugs and the streets,” said 29-year-old Diane Monique-Rodriguez, who has a history of drug abuse and was recently re-incarcerated for two and a half weeks. “Now I’m just trying to get on my feet and better myself as a person.”Monique-Rodriguez is one of the hundreds of people who have attended meetings of Wings for LIFE International, an Albuquerque-based organization aimed at breaking the cycle of incarceration in New Mexico.“Programs like this keep me off of the streets and from using drugs and alcohol,” she said. “This last time I was incarcerated I really thought about my life, because I have a teenage girl who’s 14 years old, a son who’s 11, and a 6-year-old, who I haven’t had (custody of) for two years. I’m getting old—I need to get on with my life, and do productive things, and actually be a mother to my children.”
Wings for LIFE International was established in 1995 by Executive Director and Founder Ann Edenfield Sweet, who also introduced it in India in 2006 and Kenya in 2013.
The organization assists former prisoners in developing the skills they need to successfully rejoin society. It provides workshops and presentations on subjects like how to build a resume and apply for a job. It also provides classes for the at-risk children and spouses of prison inmates, so they too feel supported, and refrain from falling into similar patterns of criminal behavior.
Don Shapiro, the current chairman of the board of directors at Wings for LIFE International, has worked with children from incarcerated families for over 10 years at his full-time job in the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department. There he helps children reintegrate into society after they’ve been released from juvenile detention facilities. He says that the process is helped through programs like Wings.
“I found out, after a couple of years of working with these young people, that a large percentage of the young people had parents in prison, either currently or sometime during their childhood,” Shapiro said. “As we began to talk about that, I became aware of how that affected them.”
Shapiro says these juveniles would describe a feeling of being stigmatized and having lost the connection to the incarcerated parent.
”They didn’t have an adult that was loving them and teaching them how to be a good person,” he said.
From 2011-2012, more than 52,000 children in New Mexico were reported to have had a parent who, at some point in their lives, served time in jail or prison, according to a 2016 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. These children represent approximately 10% of the state of New Mexico’s entire child population.
According to Wings for LIFE International’s website, these children are at a “critical risk of dropping out of school, getting involved in violence, and teen pregnancy, due to the fact that most of them are living in poverty-stricken, high crime areas with few or no positive adult role models.”
Shapiro says that approximately 7 out of 10 children with an incarcerated parent also end up in the criminal justice system.
“Some of the families end up following that route because they just can’t seem to make it any other way, and they think there’s going to be some kind of economic benefit, which there isn’t,” Shapiro said.
To break this cycle, Shapiro says Wings for LIFE International follows a strategy based on 40 Developmental Assets necessary for healthy growth, published by the Search Institute in Minneapolis. This list includes external support assets such as family support and peer influence, and internal support assets such as positive identity and commitment to learning. He says that the list of assets works as a kind of conceptual model for developing strength within people, families, and communities, and teaches important life skills.
Shapiro says the programs at Wings also help young people think about how they treat other people. The goal of the organization, he says, is to “be together with other people, have a beautiful dinner, sit and have conversation, learn from expert speakers, and to develop life skills—everything from how to write a resume, to finding a job, to setting a table, and shaking hands in a way that people will respect you and you will show respect for them.”
Currently, Wings for LIFE International meets every Monday night in Albuquerque at either the St. John’s United Methodist Church or the Second Presbyterian church. Meetings are open to people of all denominations. The group also hosts three community “Family Days” each year: a Christmas party, an Easter party, and a Back-To-School party, aimed at providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere during these important times of the year.
“There’s a sense of community, a sense of companionship. People are sitting together at a table having dinner, and teaching each other things. They’re giving each other tips, they’re learning about the skills of life, and they’re able to see people who are positive,” Shapiro said. “I haven’t seen anything like it—it’s magical.”
Dominic LeDoux, a staff member at Wings for LIFE International who also works full-time at the Santa Fe County Correctional Facility, says that his job has allowed him to see how rough the incarceration of a loved one can be on a family.
“In a lot of cases the mom didn’t do anything wrong, or the children didn’t do anything wrong, but they’re suffering just as much as the person incarcerated,” LeDoux said. “All of a sudden you have a single mother trying to raise three kids, and you don’t realize that they’re out on their own and they have nowhere to turn. This program is aimed at helping people in that kind of situation.”
LeDoux says that the best part of his work at Wings for LIFE International is being able to support and care for former prisoners and their families when they might not be able to do so themselves.
“These people have been in prison, they’ve been knocked down, they’ve been shunned,” he said. “But just to have someone remember your name, just to have someone say ‘Hello John, how are you doing today?’ puts a smile on their face. I think that’s the best part of my job.”
Wings for Life International also works with a number of other programs, such as the New Mexico Women’s Recovery Academy and the nonprofit YDI, which focuses on New Mexico’s youth, as well as multiple parole and probation officers.
According to LeDoux, former prisoners who volunteer at Wings are able to fulfill legal requirements mandated by the court. Oftentimes they choose to remain at Wings, even after they are fully released, he says.
The organization is also open to working with CNM and UNM students who are studying service learning and need to fulfill certain requirements for working with nonprofits. LeDoux says that college students have increasingly shown interest in the program, and that this semester approximately 30 CNM students signed up to volunteer.