CLAREMORE — Shaunte Gordon wept when she got her first paycheck at age 35.
In and out of prison since she was 15, Gordon missed out on this rite of passage that comes with that all important first job. She missed out on getting her driver's license, too, and with each of these lost opportunities, all of the life lessons and advantages that come with them.
Recently, Gordon said an eatery in this Rogers County city changed her life.
The She Brews coffee house at 414 W Will Rogers offered her her first job and essentially a much-needed second chance.
She Brews, Gordon said, may be a tiny place, but it’s filled with big dreams, plenty of faith and an abundance of hope.
Rhonda Bear, of Claremore, opened the nonprofit ministry establishment in 2012 specifically to employ formerly incarcerated women.
Bear, 50, said many women released from Oklahoma prisons need lots of help to make the transition back into society.
She said she knows firsthand what it’s like for them because she battled drug addiction and was eventually incarcerated herself. Bear said she’s been out of prison for 13 years, and she made the successful transformation from inmate to productive member of the community with the help of a faith-based group called Stand in the Gap that came alongside her and supported her through the ups and downs of transition.
Wanting to give back and help curb recidivism, Bear opened a transitional home for recently released women called His House eight years ago.
She said she quickly realized that each of the women staying there needed to find jobs, but this meant they were at the mercy of employers who often seemed to find it too hard to get past their felony convictions and previous imprisonment.
Bear said she initially opened She Brews in a flea market booth space in Claremore to give women from His House somewhere to learn basic job skills and for much-needed community interaction.
“I only had $300 and a bunch of faith,” she said.
When the expenses of the flea market booth enterprise got to be more than Bear and her husband could afford, she began making plans to shut down.
That’s when several members of her house of worship, First Baptist Church of Claremore, came to her with an idea.
They said they didn’t want to see the little shop close its doors, and they were willing to do all they could to make sure it stayed open.
‘We caught your vision’
Bear gets emotional when she remembers that conversation with some of the women in her church.
“They said, ‘We caught your vision, so you can’t close,’ " she said.
The women and other helpful members of the Claremore faith community held a silent auction and raised $12,000, enough to move She Brews from the flea market booth to a storefront just across the street.
When the shop opened with bare walls and few decorative items, a local interior decorator came in and decorated the shop, Bear said. Other community members painted and brought in more decorations.
Women from First Baptist-Claremore, like Earlene Washburn, Ph.D., began bringing fresh-baked goods to the shop, and eventually treats like lemon bars, cinnamon rolls and brownies were added to the menu.
The shop does a bustling business most weekdays, serving customers in the establishment and also making deliveries to local businesses and even the Rogers County Courthouse.
Washburn, a professor at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, said the women make the treats, along with sandwiches and soups, in the church’s large commercial kitchen and deliver the items to the shop. Washburn makes the shop’s “She Bread,” a tasty hunk of whole wheat bread featuring sesame seeds and dried cranberries, that is served with all the salads and soups at She Brews.
Washburn said it’s sad to think that many of the women working at She Brews did not have positive environments to go back to once they were released from prison. His House and the complementary She Brews ministry offer them a fresh start and a better opportunity for a new life.
“You’re taking people from a point in their life where they could hardly survive at all to a place where they learn critical thinking, reliability, problem solving and customer service skills,” Washburn said.
“It’s thrilling for me to serve God this way.”
Testimony with your coffee?
One of Bear’s favorite aspects of She Brews is the way the women like Gordon and Michelle Wise, 33, get to interact with customers.
Bear said the ladies often can be seen talking to people and sharing their faith testimonies of how the Lord has helped them overcome numerous obstacles. People come in off the street and ask for prayer because of the positive and faith-full atmosphere in the shop, she said.
Wise, She Brews’ kitchen supervisor, said she went to prison three times on drug related offenses, beginning with the her first imprisonment at age 18.
She said she had a baby during her last imprisonment, and Bear helped her get the child placed with a family member. When the child later died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Bear did the paperwork so she could go to the baby’s funeral.
Wise smiled as she said she recently earned the right to see her 7-year-old daughter for extended visits, and the help from Bear, She Brews and the Claremore community made it possible.
“This is my first time I was able to walk out of prison and have someone there to support me,” she said of Bear and her housing/job programs
Meanwhile, Bear said she’d like for She Brews to have a larger kitchen and maybe a larger space eventually (it’s currently about 900 square feet).
However, she said the benefits reaped by the little shop go far above its size.
“We are strictly a faith-based program, so even if we stay small, lives are impacted,” Bear said.
“I think God’s done a lot with a small space.”