There’s a letter above Barb Thomas’ desk where she works for the Women’s Resource Center.
Addressed to her, it contains words of gratitude for her mentorship in the New Beginnings program, which recently received a $52,000 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The letter is signed by Ronda Garmon, a former participant in the Women’s Resource Center program that provides mentoring and employment plans for incarcerated women.
Garmon had been in and out of Kent County Jail from the age of 20 to 43.
“I had always lived my life on the go, not wanting to deal with where I was and what was happening in my life,” Garmon said. “So I was always running and running and running. ...”
Today, Garmon is still involved in the New Beginnings program — but as a mentor.
She remembers sitting in Kent County Jail when she heard her name called. Surrounded by guards and other scared inmates, she feared the worst. Instead, Garmon was selected to be a participant in the New Beginnings program. Since her last 77-day sentence in 2013, she’s been a free woman.
Garmon was a mother at 14 and held multiple jobs to support herself and her family, yet she always feared having a job interview. In the New Beginnings program, women in and out of jail are taught skills to succeed in the working world and are given individualized employment plans.
“I learned how to present myself, or basically how to present myself as a decent human being, even though I had some things I wasn’t so proud about,” Garmon said. “Just because you make mistakes it doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Reflecting on all of the women with varying life stories and goals, she wonders what would’ve happened if she met a mentor like Barb Thomas when she was 20, at the time of her first jail sentence. Garmon smiles and laughs when she speaks about how Thomas’ straightforward mentorship led her to a job she loves.
“This is where I’m supposed to be. I know that for sure.”
When she’s not taking classes full-time at Cornerstone University, she’s mentoring New Beginnings participants or manning the desk at the Women’s Resource Center with a beaming smile. Work is personal for her, as she shares her own story of incarceration in hopes that it will show women that a bright future is possible.
“They’re amazing women and they just need a chance. They just need the extra support. They just need the extra door opened,” Garmon said. “If they can somehow get an extra boost, here and there, it can make a big difference in their life. It can make a huge difference in their life.”
Garmon graduates from Cornerstone University next summer with a degree in ministry leadership. As for her post-grad life, she said she already has her dream job, and she’s here to stay.
“I’m like a permanent fixture here,” Garmon said.