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Second Chance

Memphis woman helps inmates adjust to life on the outside.

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LaVonda Henderson, a mother of three, was arrested last September when money disappeared from the ACE Cash Express where she worked.

Though Henderson says she was framed, she couldn't prove it. While serving time at Jail East, she jumped at the opportunity to sign up with Second Chance Re-entry, a program that helps female inmates adjust to life outside jail.

Run by local caterer Lea Robinson, Second Chance is a one-woman show. Robinson meets with interested inmates. Once released, many of the women are put to work at Lea's Catering Service or at Steppin' Up, a salon run by Tamika and Cartez Bonner, Robinson's daughter and son-in-law.

"A lot of these women don't have Social Security cards or birth certificates, and they need those to get jobs, so I help them get all that stuff," Robinson says.

Unlike many of Robinson's clients, Henderson finished high school and even attended college. She simply needed a jumpstart in the career department, so she worked at Robinson's catering service until she found a part-time job.

"I helped her make some cookies for a job, and then Ms. Robinson introduced me to her pastor. He ran a booth at a flea market, and I did some work there for him," Henderson says. "Right now, I'm working part-time, but Ms. Robinson still checks in with me to make sure I'm doing okay."

Some clients who need drug treatment are enrolled in rehabilitation programs, and Robinson helps others find housing.

Though she's been donating food and other goods to the homeless for over 20 years, Robinson wanted to do more and began Second Chance two years ago.

Now she meets with inmates at Jail East weekly to sign up new clients and consult with those who've already enrolled. In a year's time, Robinson assists about 50 women.

"The folks at the jail let the inmates know I'm coming and what the program is about. They decide if they want to come or not," Henderson says. "I usually stay for about two to four hours and do assessments to find out what individual needs, goals, and plans are."

For now, Robinson runs Second Chance with no funding. The Bonners offer free haircuts and styling services to Second Chance clients at the Steppin' Up salon, and Robinson relies on friends and family contacts to help former inmates find work, rehabilitation, and housing.

"I'm not trying to feed and clothe them forever, but I'll show them how," Robinson says. "I'll help them get their GED or enrolled in college. We try to teach people how to find jobs, or start their own businesses, or learn a trade. I believe these people can change."

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