Deborrah Carter was given a very special gift in 1997 — the gift of a second chance.
When her family life fell apart, Carter began using drugs and was subsequently incarcerated on a drug-related charge. While serving a four-month sentence at Monroe Correctional Facility, she learned about an organization called Step by Step that offered workshops for female inmates. Carter went to the first meeting for one of the organization’s programs mainly because she was involving herself in anything she could find to make the four months go by faster. She didn’t know that Step by Step would permanently change her life for the better.
Step by Step is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women discover their unique gifts and strengths and rebuild their lives. It was founded in Rochester in 1992 by Margy Mayk and Pat Merle. Both Mayk, who used to work at a Catholic retreat house, and Merle, a former social worker, are Catholic and have long felt called to help the poor and oppressed. Women in prison and formerly incarcerated women now “on the outside” represented a population whose needs were not being met, Mayk said.
“The criminal justice system was designed for men. Women need so much more because men have so much more,” she said, noting that more funding and programming exist for male inmates than for their female counterparts. “On the outside, men have the power, and women need to understand their (own) power.”
Mayk, Merle and the rest of the Step by Step staff accomplish this goal by offering life-history and parenting workshops to female inmates at Monroe Correctional Facility and Albion Correctional Facility. Step by Step also offers a mentoring program and quarterly retreats for women on the outside, as well as special activities several times a year for these women and their families.
During life-history workshops women learn to find and celebrate their gifts and strengths while telling their own stories; name their dreams and hopes for the future; and identify obstacles and develop plans to overcome them.
There are seven different eight-week workshop modules, each with a different objective. Workshop facilitators encourage participants to be creative and use several different activities to help the women look deep inside themselves and examine things they may not want to. Many participants in the past, for example, refused to create a family tree or even name their family members, Mayk said. It’s important for them to realize where they come from in order to learn more about themselves, so workshop facilitators now approach the topic from a different angle.
Instead of making a family tree, participants now draw an actual tree with branches. They’re then given a number of round stickers representing different issues, including physical and sexual abuse, incarceration and substance abuse. Facilitators then ask the participants to place a corresponding sticker on the tree for each relative who has dealt with a particular issue.
Most women are amazed when they look at their finished tree, Mayk said. The exercise makes them realize they’re not alone, and their family histories may have contributed to their current situations.
In another workshop, participants take turns naming the strengths they see in each other. They do this because it’s sometimes easier to see someone else’s gifts than it is to see one’s own, said Katie Dieter, coordinator of Step by Step’s parenting program.
“It’s mind boggling to them, and it lifts them up,” Dieter said.
Group interaction is an important part of the workshops, and participants often learn more from each other than they do from the facilitators, said Jo-Z Powers, outreach worker for Step by Step. It’s important for both facilitators and participants to treat each other with respect in order for the workshops to be successful, Mayk said. The women are the experts of their own stories, so they must be listened to with respect when they share, she added.
Sharing their stories is part of the healing process for these women, Mayk said, citing as an example the story of the woman with a hemorrhage in Mark 5:21-34 who touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed. In this passage, Jesus realizes healing power has gone out of him, turns to see who touched him, and the woman knelt at his feet “and told him the whole truth.” Mayk believes that Jesus healed the woman completely by listening to her story.
“He didn’t want to be just a dispenser of healing. He … knew that she needed to tell her whole story because no one else would listen to her. That’s our workshops,” Mayk said.
Step by Step’s workshops and retreats provide a place where inmates and women on the outside can talk about things they usually can’t share with their families and friends, and participants often become their own family of sorts, said Carter, who now volunteers at Step by Step for about 30 hours each week.
“They help me and I help them, and as long as we’re doing good, life is going to look out for me. God has blessed me,” Carter said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Step by Step is looking for financial donors as well as volunteers for a variety of tasks. For more information, contact Margy Mayk at 585/224-0763, ext. 202.