After a half-dozen stints in prison, Judy Maechling wanted a change. But wanting it wasn’t enough.
“I didn’t have any place to go,” Maechling said. “I didn’t have family. My mother passed away when I was in jail. The other members of my family didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I was on the street for 35 years living that lifestyle. I felt like I was thrown away.”
Then she found Connections for Life. It’s turned out to be enough — and not just for her.
The nonprofit organization works with women trying to re-enter society from prison. It provides them with a year of help so they can break old habits and make it in the real world.
Started in 2000, Connections for Life has been directed by Karen Stagg since 2008 following founder Myria Andre-Martin’s retirement. It offers housing, job placement, transportation to and from work, food, clothing and both financial and life skills training.
April Baur, program director for the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women in Tallulah, is impressed by how comprehensive it is.
“There’s other transitional housing, but not what Karen’s doing,” Baur said. “It’s phenomenal. She is my first go-to for anybody I consider that needs help for leaving, especially for my long-timers. She has been absolutely wonderful.”
Baur knew Maechling from her prison days at LTCW, where she served time for theft, drug and prostitution offenses. Maechling had heard about Connections for Life during a previous incarceration but wasn’t interested. Her attitude had changed by 2016.
“I just wanted something different for my life,” said Maechling, 52. “I didn’t want to die on the street. I didn’t want to be out there anymore.”
Stagg interviews inmates who are about to be released and want to join the program. The interview not only assesses their readiness, but also lets them know it’s not going to be easy. They will have to get a job, which CFL helps them find, live a frugal lifestyle and can have no romantic relationships during their 12 months in the program.
“Some women think that’s a pretty big deal, but we want the woman to work on herself for the year she’s with us, because it’s been our experience a lot of times they don’t think highly enough of themselves, and perhaps they’ll select relationships that lead to unhealthy things in their lives,” Stagg said. “If a woman thinks she has to have that, we’re very honest and say we may not be a good fit for you.”
For those joining Connections for Life, it begins the day they leave prison. CFL picks them up if it’s a local prisoner or meets them at the bus station if they’re coming in from farther away. After two weeks to acclimate to freedom, they begin job readiness training, which includes developing a resume and doing mock job interviews. Most in the program get jobs in restaurants or hotels.
The program has enough apartments to house 13 women. Throughout the year, they’re taught how to budget, how to behave professionally and a variety of other life skills.
“One of the other reasons we stay small is because we are very hands-on,” Stagg said. “We tell our clients we’re going to be engaged in your life at every level for the year you’re with us. It’s a teaching process, the whole journey. We do financial literacy with the clients. We have a wonderful woman who was a former Avon trainer nationally, and she comes and does life enrichment classes with the ladies a couple of times a month. All along the way, we’re guiding them. We’re involved with them. We see our clients every day.”
They see Maechling every day, too, even though she’s completed the program. She worked in a restaurant, then a position came open in the Connections for Life thrift store at 2286 Highland Road, which, along with grants and donations, funds the program. Her success has enabled her to reconnect with her daughter and brother, bonds that had been strained by her past.
“My life has changed so much,” she said. “I never imagined I’d be where I am today.”
And if she hadn’t gone through the program?
“I would probably be back in prison,” she said.
To learn more about Connections for Life, visit connectionsforlife.net.