Women in Transition

Inmate to Inspiration

One day last week,

One Day Last Week,

Shaunte Came Running

in from teaching the Women in Transition class at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. "Rhonda, come quick," she said. Rhonda Bear, Women in Transition Program Director, says she "thought the women in the class had been disrespecting Shaunte" and that Shaunte needed her help.

So Rhonda rushed into the class. “What’s going on in here?” she asked.

That’s when every woman in the class stood up and started clapping.

A few weeks before, one of the ladies in class had seen this article in the Tulsa World. Proud of Rhonda, she’d worked with her classmates to have the article framed at the shop inside Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. That day, they presented the framed article to Rhonda.

Now the article is hanging at She Brews Coffee Shop with a note: “A gift from our friends at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.”

Read the full article (appropriately titled, “Inmate to Inspiration”, below).

Rhonda Bear poses with her article

Inmate to Inspiration

By Ginnie Graham, Tulsa World

Rhonda Bear quietly builds momentum for criminal justice reform

Rhonda Bear’s name first appeared in the Tulsa World in December 2004 in a profile about the obstacles women face after being released from prison.
She was pictured with two of her three children and was brutally honest about how drug addiction destroyed her relationships and opportunities, eventually leading to a 10-year prison sentence.
After her release in 2002, Bear came to Tulsa determined in her sobriety to rebuild her family and make life better for women who, like her, fell victim to substance abuse and destructive behavior.
Through the years, she occasionally pops into the news for her work creating mentorships, employment and housing for women released from Oklahoma prisons. Bear is the director of the Stand in the Gap Ministries Women in Transition program and founder of two coffeehouses and 13 transitional living homes.
In January, Bear was asked to be on the stage at Gov. Kevin Stitt’s inauguration, where she was referenced as a criminal justice reform crusader.
On Friday, she is one of 11 speakers chosen to give a TEDx talk at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City. The TEDx Oklahoma City events are styled like the national TED Talks, which feature engaging and powerful speakers to address topics in 18 minutes or less.
Bear speaks often about why Oklahoma has a decades-long history of topping the nation in incarceration, particularly with women.
“When people hear the stories of how prisoners got there, they are shocked,” Bear said. “We shouldn’t have people serving a life sentence for failing drug court, and that’s what we have in rural Oklahoma.
“I have to fight for them and tell their stories. That’s why I think why people like to hear what I say. I tell the stories of others.”
Bear’s own inspirational story is worth repeating.
In the mid-1970s, a soccer coach gave her, at age 11, a Valium for anxiety before a game. She loved the feel of it and started stealing pills, working her way into cocaine use by her teen years.
She ran away to join a biker gang, eventually taking 20 to 40 pills a day by age 18 and routinely experiencing blackouts. In the ’80s, she moved to the Sallisaw area to marry and have children but couldn’t kick the opioid addiction.

After her marriage failed, she sobered up between 1993 and 1995 to finish a GED and start college. Then one hit of methamphetamine led to a spiral and loss of her children and home.

She racked up drug-related convictions starting in 1998. In 2001, a Sequoyah County judge gave her 10 years for three drug possession charges but added a stipulation: If she completed a drug treatment program while incarcerated, the remainder of the sentence would be suspended.
Bear completed a faith-based treatment program and arranged for housing with Exodus House through the United Methodist Church. She credits her participation in the Stand in the Gap Ministries transition program as crucial, particularly her mentor, Eileen Guidry.
“I had been an addict since age 12 and had no life skills,” Bear said. “I didn’t have any until someone came into my life to say, ‘You can do better.’ It’s one thing to hear that and another to see it in action. She would not give up on me.”
After Bear handled her self-care and re-established relationships with her children, she began giving back, starting with Stand in the Gap Ministries.
The program includes a 12-week training program while incarcerated, followed by support from a mentor upon release. About 90% completing the full program stay crime free. In the past three years, 180 children of those women have been reunited with their mothers.
“Rhonda comes from this population of women she serves. She has literally walked in their shoes,” said Francois Cardinal, executive director of Stand in the Gap Ministries. “As a result of her life journey and experience, Rhonda is absolutely sold out, committed and passionate about transforming the lives of the women we support through the WIT program. When she walks into a correctional facility, she has instant credibility and respect.
“For women in prison, Rhonda’s story opens the door to immeasurable hope.”
In addition, Bear found time to start the trendy She Brews coffeehouses in Claremore and the His House Outreach Ministries transitional living program.
Her work is rooted in a deep Christian faith, with a concern about children of incarcerated women.
“I’m doing everything I can in my power to help these women,” Bear said. “I house them, I employ them, I mentor them and I advocate for them at the state Capitol and at the federal level. I’m doing all I can to save kids by saving their moms.”
Activism is what Bear wants from her TEDx talk.
“I want people to step up and mentor,” she said. “Not everyone is called to go into the prison. But there are opportunities to advocate and help others, like volunteering on a Little League baseball team for a kid with a parent in prison or helping a kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.
“Oklahoma has leaders and a governor wanting to make us a top 10 state. But someone saying that in Oklahoma City won’t make it happen. It’s going to take people in our communities doing things to make that happen.”