The following blog was created from a recent, written exchange between Still Point Managing Director Hector Alvarez and former Persephone Project participant, Yolanda Burgess.
Today, Yolanda Burgess is happily married and a doting grandmother to her six grandchildren, including a set of identical twin infant grandsons. She has been working in social services for 12 years, and is currently employed by A Safe Haven, a facility that serves people of all ages who are homeless. Yolanda is very committed to her work, stating that “it continues to feed my passion to give back to society, to stay connected to people and to what goes on in my neighborhood.”
Yolanda’s path to her currently vibrant and rewarding life was not an easy one. Earlier in her life, Yolanda struggled with chemical dependency, became involved in illegal activities, and was eventually convicted of a felony.
Reflecting on the experience of her incarceration, Yolanda shares, “I experienced a lot of things that just did not sit right with me, especially as far as the way women were being treated and being disrespected… Also, the circumstances behind a lot of the women being incarcerated saddened me… There were a lot of women in there who were committing pretty crimes to get a few dollars to feed their addiction. I was finding out that these women had children at home who were being left unattended to, or left with family members who did not want to be bothered with them. A lot of young children ended up running to the streets, running away from circumstances that they were being put in because their mom was incarcerated for 30 or 60 days, when that whole time what she needed was some drug treatment and some counseling.”
When her incarceration ended in 2005, Yolanda came to Grace House. Grace House is a transitional home in Chicago providing support and housing to women exiting the Illinois prison system. During Yolanda’s stay, Still Point Founder Lisa Wagner-Carollo came to Grace House to invite some of the women to take part in a new writing and theater program aimed at creating an original performance about their experiences. Yolanda decided to sign up. The ensemble that she joined became Sisters Rising, and they performed their work throughout the Chicago area.
“At the time I started working with Lisa and Still Point Theatre, I was searching for my identity,” Yolanda recalls, “I was trying to find out who I was and re-realize that I was important and that I could have a voice in this society. Because when you are in prison it takes away from your identity, it takes away from your self-esteem. You just feel like you are not worthy. When I started writing during our workshops with Sisters Rising it reawakened my sense of self-worth. I began knowing who I was in society, and I began feeling OK and proud of the fact that I had something to offer. Being a member of Sisters Rising and performing our strong, powerful pieces – it reawakened the WOMAN in me. I no longer was a prisoner. I no longer was a victim of my past… I was re-raised. It re-raised me as a woman and a productive member of society.”
From this vantage point, Yolanda can offer a voice of hope to other women who are incarcerated or recently released and trying to rebuild their lives. Hector Alvarez asked her what advice or encouragement she would give to women who might be at Grace House or in other transitional facilities who are given an opportunity to express themselves through Still Point’s programming. She shared the following: “Free yourself! Absolutely, free yourself of your secrets, free yourself of what’s hurting you or has hurt you. Free yourself of guilt, shame. Free yourself of anything that’s imprisoning your mind, your spirit or your body. Because you do not have to suffer, or be a victim of anything in your past anymore.”
In a more generalized yet equally inspiring message, Yolanda conveyed her hope for a more compassionate society, stating, “I want society to know that we all are connected. We all share an experience or a story, in one way or another. Through words and through experiences, whether they be negative or positive, we all can empower each other, no matter what our background is, no matter what our race is, and no matter what our financial status is. We all can empower each other.”
Through the Persephone Project, Still Point continues to provide outreach programs to currently and formerly incarcerated women. To support this work, please click the yellow donate button at thetop of the page.
by Anita Dacanay