Gr8 Neighbor changing lives of former female inmates

Gr8 Neighbor changing lives of former female inmates

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A New Orleans woman is determined to help former inmates who are facing release from prison with nowhere to go and no idea how to start over.

On most days you will find Rhonda Oliver doing code enforcement for the city of New Orleans, but on this May afternoon, she is paying it forward and changing someone’s life.

Oliver is the founder of a grass roots organization called Women Determined, and she is determined to do good.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Oliver said. “I want people to be active in the community, give someone a helping hand, reach back, help someone up and stop trying to tear people down.”

Her organization provides housing and so much more to women who are released from prison with no home to go to.

“They have many needs," Oliver said. "They need dress shoes, casual shoes, slip on shoes, shorts, pants, jacket, panties, bras.”

Michelle Benjamin -- who was just released from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel after 25 years -- now has a place to call home.

She is transitioning back into a society she left when she was just 16 years old.

“If you have a support system, it’s not as hard,” Benjamin said. “Rhonda and a few other people, volunteers and Christian people have really been helping me.”

Benjamin can live in the house, paid for by Women Determined, for up one year while she searches for work and saves money.

Oliver is also teaching her the ropes of a modern day world, as Benjamin is learning about laptop computers and touch screen smartphones. Oliver said she knows the importance of lending a helping hand, because she needed one herself.

“When I came out, I saw there were no resources for women getting out of prison,” Oliver said.

Four years ago, Oliver was released from prison and has since used her own money she makes from motivational speaking and putting on a play called “Released to Nowhere” to help fund her organization’s mission.

Benjamin said she is appreciative.

“She has a good heart. Even when I knew her before, she had a good heart,” Benjamin said.

And Oliver said working with Benjamin and other women in tough situations is rewarding.

“It makes me feel good that I’m able to help someone,” Oliver said. “I’m proud of myself that I am able to pave the way, be a forerunner for those who are coming behind me, who don’t have hope.”

Two weeks ago, the city of New Orleans honored Oliver with a Second Chance Award, which celebrates formerly incarcerated citizens who are now doing outstanding work.

It’s more proof that this FOX 8 Great Neighbor is making a difference in the community.

“I’m grateful to be a great neighbor. I mean some people just don’t get recognized. I didn’t think I would, but it doesn’t matter because I wanted to help the ladies regardless,” Oliver said. “We all made poor choices and now we learn from our choices, and we are just trying to pay it forward. We continue to move forward and clean up our mess that we made and turn it into a beautiful message.”

For more information on Women Determined, visit their website here: www.womendetermined.org

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