Fireworks, champagne toasts, “Auld Lang Syne,” black eyed peas, collard greens and resolutions. How routine and fortunate it is for me to say goodbye to the past year and feel the hopeful anticipation of possibilities of the year to come. However, for formerly incarcerated individuals something as seemingly simple as having a “fresh start” is much harder to come by.

At nearly double the national average, Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. But most people serving time in our state’s prisons don’t remain there forever and a large percentage are eventually released. Typically upon release they receive $20 and a bus ride, and have little or no direction on how to transition to becoming a functioning citizen again. Reentry programs are scarce and society doesn’t always welcome with open arms ex-offenders who strive to find housing, employment and emotional support so they can make a better life for themselves.

Following 13 years in prison and her own consequent struggles after being released, SisterHearts Founder Maryam Henderson-Uloho vowed to use her experience to assist and empower other formerly incarcerated women to discover a path to cross back over into society with dignity. In prison, Henderson-Uloho explains, women are “desensitized, dehumanized and demoralized” to the point that not only is an individual not allowed to make a decision, but eventually she becomes incapable of decision making and therefore gradually less and less independent. The negative collateral consequences of a prison stay can be so overwhelming that many ex-offenders, while physically released from prison, are never fully mentally released.

Upon her release though, Henderson-Uloho knew she had to “rehumanize” herself to survive and decided to do so by serving others. She began her journey with just a suitcase of used items she sold on New Orleans street corners, and within just three years was able to acquire the current space in Arabi to launch the SisterHearts Re-Entry Program. Focused on providing female ex-offenders with a safe environment for healing and achieving new goals, SisterHearts provides personal development courses, transportation, bank account support, driver’s license support and other resources to assist with their reintegration into society. Through her mantra that decarceration requires truth, trust and honesty, the SisterHearts Re-Entry program provides a community of friendship and compassion enabling women to regain their independence and find success.

One of the most important components of the SisterHearts Re-Entry Program is the 17,000-square foot SisterHearts Thrift Store, a partnership with St. Bernard Parish to employ formerly incarcerated individuals. Filled to the brim with donated high-quality and interesting merchandise, the Thrift Store provides a nurturing space for ex-offenders – men and women – “to develop a human-to-human connection through customer service”. And most importantly through working at the SisterHearts Thrift Shop, participants in the program can find subsequent employment and economic stability more easily because they’ve held a job. Truly a community thrift store, one customer explained “There’s heart in everything at SisterHearts! Gracious service, outstanding bargains and all for a good cause. The nuggets you find at SisterHearts will surprise you.”

Henderson-Uloho’s inspiring story of her rise from the devastation of prison to power demonstrates that new beginnings for ex-offenders through SisterHearts’ community of friendship and positive rehabilitation benefit us all.

A little more …

To donate, volunteer or learn more about SisterHearts call 345-2276, visit visit their store at 7519 West Judge Perez Drive, Arabi.


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