Vanessa is sitting at a table at She Brews Coffee Shop in Claremore, Oklahoma. Her two step-children, Bethany and Jason, are, at various moments, hugging her, listening to her, sitting next to her, and circling around her with the uninhibited energy of children at the beginning of summer vacation. Nearly every one who walks in the door knows Vanessa. They talk to her kids, comment on her hair (highlighted blonde for the summer), and ask about her classes at Rogers State University.
After talking, we step outside to take a photo of Vanessa and her family. In this photo, a snapshot frozen in time, Vanessa’s life could not look more different than it did six years ago. In 2010, Vanessa was an incarcerated felon, drug addict and dealer.
“The first time I smoked marijuana, I was ten-years-old,” Vanessa says as she watches her eight-year-old stepdaughter talk to the She Brews barista. Vanessa’s first experience with drugs led to a relatively casual use of marijuana and methamphetamine. But her addiction escalated after her father’s death six years later. “I looked up to him,” Vanessa says, “and he was a drug addict.” Following her father’s footsteps, Vanessa got involved with a gang in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She sold drugs to an undercover Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation worker that led to a warrant for her arrest. “When I found out about the warrant, I ran. For a year, I was always looking over my shoulder.” The first time Vanessa went to jail, she was 19.
A post-incarceration relationship and desire to finish high school moved Vanessa to Oklahoma City. About five months into the relationship, Vanessa discovered that her boyfriend was using crack cocaine. She introduced him to meth, and the relationship went downhill. She snaps her fingers to describe the decline; “instantly”. The couple was arrested for robbing a house in search of money to buy drugs. When they were released, they reunited and got high.
Between 2008 and 2010, Vanessa was “on the run” from charges in Payne and Oklahoma Counties. Each time she landed in jail, she was sentenced to probation instead of rehabilitation or prison time. Each time she got out of jail, she returned to the destructive addictions and relationships that had landed her in trouble in the first place.
“In March of 2010,” Vanessa remembers, “I got in trouble for stealing a pair of shoes.” Although Vanessa was only in her early twenties, she called herself “drained”. She went to jail in Payne County and was offered probation again. “I said, ‘I’m a destructive person and probation is not working for me. I either need rehab or prison.’” There were no available beds at the rehabilitation facility, so Vanessa was sentenced to three years in prison.
Vanessa reported to Eddie Warrior Correctional Center with high hopes. She believed that the Department of Corrections was going to “correct” her and looked forward to the opportunity to change. But after some time inside, she wasn’t changing. She was getting in fights, selling prohibited items on the yard, and although she wasn’t using drugs, she had little to no hope that, when her time was up, she wouldn’t settle back into her destructive lifestyle.
In April 2011, Vanessa “hit rock bottom”. For perhaps the first time in her life, while sitting in a holding cell on lockdown, she prayed. “Lord, if you are real, I need you to show up.” The next day, Vanessa was told that she was being sent to Payne County to address other charges against her. Because of her history, Vanessa assumed she would face an additional sentence of five to six years. Days after her prayer, in court, she was sentenced to one more year in prison and six months of probation. “That was my sign that God was real.” In total, Vanessa served about five more months, “but I was changed.”
Her prayer life continued to grow. After praying for a Christian “bunkie”, Vanessa was assigned to bunk with Tammy Franklin, one of the most outspokenly faithful women in Eddie Warrior at the time. Tammy introduced Vanessa to Rhonda Bear, who was teaching her first Women in Transition class at Eddie Warrior. Vanessa remembers sitting in the Women in Transition course, hearing Rhonda tell her story of addiction, incarceration, faith, and Stand in the Gap. “I knew that if she could change, I could change. And that gave me hope.”
After her release, Vanessa moved into Rhonda’s His House transitional home in Claremore. She began attending First Baptist Church and Celebrate Recovery. Within a few months, she was matched with a Stand in the Gap small group to help mentor her as she transitioned to life after addiction and incarceration. Lisa and Keith Martin and Marsha and Will Barnes formed her Stand in the Gap “family”. “By that time, I knew God worked through prayer,” says Vanessa. With the Martins and the Barnes, Vanessa prayed that she would get her driver’s license, an education, and, when the person and time was right, get married and have children.
Vanessa not only got her driver’s license, she also received a car that had been donated through His House Ministries. Although neither of her parents had more than an eighth grade education, Vanessa completed her GED and is enrolled at Roger’s State University pursuing her associate’s degree in sociology. When she married Josh Crouch in March 2014, she asked her Stand in the Gap “dad” to walk her down the aisle. She and her husband received full custody of his two children in June of that year. Vanessa called Lisa, a nurse, about “every little bug bite.” She credits her Stand in the Gap family with teaching her how to be a Godly, responsible, and fun parent to Bethany and Jason.
In her booth at She Brews, Vanessa lights up while she talks about going back to prison. Each week, with Rhonda at her side, Vanessa is returning to Eddie Warrior for Stand in the Gap’s Women in Transition course. She’s learning to facilitate the course from Rhonda and will eventually offer the course herself in various prisons and jails.
The first time she went back to the prison, she shared her story the way she’d heard Rhonda share hers six years ago. “I was nervous about going back,” she says. “I thought maybe a guard would recognize me. But I knew God was working. So while I was telling my story, I knew there was a girl out there hearing me and her mind was changing. She was changing her thought process. I was so grateful for the opportunity to give them hope. When I came out of there, I was just high on Jesus. And it was the best high I’ve ever had.”
Women in Oklahoma are ready and waiting to be matched with a Women in Transition small group of mentors. Will you Stand in the Gap today?
Visit www.standinthegap.org/women_in_transition for more information.