Donni Wiley's life began to fall apart in 2000. Sentenced to probation for a felony set in motion a chain of events that landed her jobless and living in a homeless shelter. Today, her life is different and her record has been expunged. Through a community-based organization that assists local women in getting their lives back together, Wiley had the opportunity to tell Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald B. Adrine over lunch about those positive changes.
"It's awesome to see my accomplishments after I've been through all this turmoil," said Wiley.
Kathleen Farkas, associate professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and consultant for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry's Women Re-Entry Network (WREN), brought several women together with judges from the Cuyahoga Country Court of Common Pleas and the Cleveland Municipal Court to give them the opportunity to discuss how they have made progress since their encounters with the criminal justice system.
"Oftentimes, judges don't have an opportunity to hear about what happens to the women they see in their courtrooms," said Farkas.
Each year, WREN plans a special Mothers' Day program. This is the second time that Farkas has assisted WREN in putting on the "Lunch with the Judges." This year's event at Massimo de Milano at West 25th and Detroit Avenue was co-chaired by Judge Adrine and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Nancy Fuerst.
WREN serves approximately 1,000 women each year through its holistic network of mental health, social services, educational program and peer-support services, said Mary Kozina, director of WREN. Among the staff that assists women in their reintegration into society are several Mandel School students working on their field placements. WREN provides services for women outside and in jail.
Community Re-Entry Director Charles See said they learned early on that women trying to reintegrate into the community faced different issues than men. WREN was established in 1995 to meet those needs.
Wiley is among WREN's success stories although she never made it into the program but is now the organization's receptionist. She was fired from her job following her felony conviction. She was subsequently evicted from her home along with her three young sons.
She found refuge at the Westside Catholic Center and signed a contract that outlined a number of things she had to do to continue living in the shelter with her children for a year. She began to apply for jobs, but did not find one. She took a customer service course at Cuyahoga Community College.
As Wiley's year in the shelter approached, she said she began to worry about what would happen to her and her children. She also said people at the shelter were concerned about her attitude. Wiley met with a therapist and explained she was angry about not being able to find employment.
The therapist suggested she go to WREN for help.
Meanwhile, she had found a job sorting clothes at a local thrift store, but the low wages would not be enough to support her and her boys. Instead of going to the job orientation, she said she chose to go against the shelter's administrators' wishes and went to WREN.
Wiley says that decision "a turning point."
When she arrived for the WREN appointment, they realized she had the skills they needed in a job opening and encouraged her to interview for a receptionist's job. She was hired two days later. Wiley started to reverse her life course, and she said she has been going strong for the past five years.
While her case was probation rather than incarceration, Wiley said, "I can still relate to the many struggles that are faced while trying to function with a criminal record in our society."
Wiley said she now has dreams for the future and envisions establishing a teen program to help youths from making some of the mistakes she made as a teen.
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