Oklahoma CURE

Ensuring that prisons are used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that prisoners have all the resources they need to turn their lives around.
GET INVOLVED

Connect with us

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN

Con to pro: Former inmate's story is Operation Hope's story

Sep 14, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

She used her second chance to turn her life around.
Heather Sisson-White is the face of Operation Hope Prison Ministry.
She’s the director of Operation Hope, which provides counseling, tutoring and mentoring services to adults and children who have been affected by incarceration.
She’s also an Operation Hope success story.
Drug-related offenses led to Sisson-White spending 18 months in prison.
With a boost from Operation Hope programs, she transitioned back into the “real” world. Now she runs Operation Hope.
Her story — there is life after prison — is the Operation Hope story.

She used her second chance to turn her life around.

By JIMMIE TRAMEL World Scene Writer | Posted: Sunday, September 13, 2015 12:00 am

Heather Sisson-White is the face of Operation Hope Prison Ministry.

She’s the director of Operation Hope, which provides counseling, tutoring and mentoring services to adults and children who have been affected by incarceration.

She’s also an Operation Hope success story.

Drug-related offenses led to Sisson-White spending 18 months in prison.

With a boost from Operation Hope programs, she transitioned back into the “real” world. Now she runs Operation Hope.

Her story — there is life after prison — is the Operation Hope story.

‘I was broken’

On any given day, 1.5 million children in the United States have a parent serving a sentence in state or federal prison, according to data on ohpm.org.

Sisson-White used to be one of those parents.

In telling her story, she said she was the product of an abusive childhood: “I had low self-esteem. I was hurt. I was broken. And a lot of people, a lot of children go through that and people think, oh, they’re resilient. But children aren’t resilient. They have to process trauma just like anyone else.”

Instead of seeking help, Sisson-White bailed out. She said she got away from her stepfather when she was 17.

In telling her story, she said she was the product of an abusive childhood: “I had low self-esteem. I was hurt. I was broken. And a lot of people, a lot of children go through that and people think, oh, they’re resilient. But children aren’t resilient. They have to process trauma just like anyone else.”

Instead of seeking help, Sisson-White bailed out. She said she got away from her stepfather when she was 17.

“I decided to act out and become rebellious, and I did drugs,” she said. “I found some stability in life whenever I got pregnant and I had my children and stuff, but I still was broken.”

Sisson-White said a daughter was taken from her. That contributed to her spiral toward rock bottom.

“I hated myself, and I just progressively got worse,” she said, adding that she tried to be a mother to her son while concealing her drug use. “It was like my secret life of destruction, of destroying myself.”

Sisson-White says with certainty she would be dead now if she hadn’t gone to prison. She couldn’t break free of addiction and she was surrounded by people who were in the throes of addiction.

“Lord, get me out of this!” she cried. “And, within three days, cops were at my door.”

Sisson-White said she pulled up in the driveway of her home as police were surrounding her residence. They told her to get out of the car.

“I’m like, ‘Take me away.’ I was ready,” she said. “I needed help. I didn’t know how else to get help. It doesn’t seem like it’s readily available. But I wasn’t really looking either. I didn’t know what to do. I was just kind of lost — big-time lost.”

Second chance

I’m going to get killed. I’m going to get shanked.

Sisson-White got scared when she was prison-bound. She knew how life behind bars had been portrayed.

“And it wasn’t like that,” she said. “It was just normal women. And they had either done drugs and gotten into trouble or stole something or they wrote bad checks, and most of the women in there weren’t really criminally minded women. You could trust them.”

Sisson-White said she drew comfort from reading her Bible and from getting to know fellow inmates. She said everyone — aside from a few troublemakers she chose to avoid or ignore — seemed supportive.

One inmate was difficult to ignore.

“We were locked down for about 28 days, and I had a bunkmate from hell,” Sisson-White said. “She was mean. She was controlling. My little bed was my space. That’s where I stayed.”

Go to prison, and it does something to you. It does this to you:

“It makes you want to have a life because everything is taken from you,” Sisson-White said

“You have three outfits. The stuff they wash your outfits with, you still stink. You can’t go to the bathroom in peace. You can’t even take a shower in peace. And the beds are metal, and they have a little piece of cushion. You don’t get pillows. You don’t get babied. You are told when to get up. At 5 o’clock in the morning, you have got to be up. You have a job to do or you are going to school when you are in prison. You get regimented into this way of thinking that, once you get out, all you want is a second chance.”

Sisson-White was serious about pursuing her second chance. She took classes to help her confront the past and prepare for the future. She took steps to become physically fit and more spiritually fit.

“I would go to church like five days a week, and all those volunteers that steadily came in every day … they came in there with open hearts and just this love,” she said. “It changed my whole viewpoint of the world and people out there. There are so many people, especially in churches, who really care about each other. It’s a great network.”

Play Days

Sisson-White spent a year in prison before she got to see her son.

The opportunity came because of a “Play Day.”

Three times a year, Operation Hope transports Tulsa-area children to Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft so kids can spend quality time with their moms. The visits are called Play Days. There’s pizza and face-painting and games and, most importantly, an opportunity to reconnect.

Sisson-White said children suffer when parents are incarcerated. Behavioral and relationship issues tend to surface.

“They can’t build stable relationships with others,” she said. “They act out in anger. They don’t do very well in school. But, through these types of programs, it helps the children to kind of endure this time when their parents are away and they see their parents are trying and they know that they are still loved and their parents are OK and they are in a safe place.”

Play Day is one of Sisson-White’s favorite Operation Hope programs. Her eyes got moist and her voice cracked when she talked about the joy of spending time with her son during a Play Day.

“Just having that one contact with him, it was amazing,” she said, adding that the visit caused her to focus on changes she needed to make to stay sober and rejoin society. “It helped me get over the hump of what I had done to myself and my family.”

Later, Sisson-White experienced Play Days from the “other” vantage point. She accompanied kids to see their moms.

“I remember that first time it was hard for me not to cry because it is so intense, the mothers and the children,” she said. “You can tell they just gravitate toward each other and every minute counts with them. I kind of wish Play Day was more than three times a year.”

Sisson-White said Play Days are not permitted inside men’s prisons. But another Operation Hope program, Bedtime Stories, allows incarcerated males to read and record bedtime stories for their children. Recordings and books are sent to kids.

“From some of the surveys we have gotten back, the children are doing better just to hear the dad’s voice,” Sisson-White said. “They like to listen to that CD over and over again.”

Girl meets world

Going to prison is frightening. So is getting out of prison.

“When I got out, it was like the whole world just hit me,” Sisson-White said.

I had no clothes. I had no food. Nothing. But I was determined.”

Is life like getting on a bike? Once you do it, do you never forget? Operation Hope staffers have helped locate bikes for clients who need transportation.

Operation Hope addresses basic needs by providing rental assistance, backpacks, toiletries, fuel cards, bus passes and tokens to clients. Some received assistance in securing drivers licenses, state IDs, birth certificates and food handler’s permits.

Operation Hope also helps clients locate housing and employment. Sisson-White wishes more people in the housing and employment fields would be willing to give second chances to folks who want to put bad decisions behind them.

“I know so many people, when they get out of prison, they try so hard,” Sisson-White said. “A lot of times they get knocked down so many times that they end up going back to the drugs or they end up going back to stealing or thieving or whatever because people are not supporting their change.”

After being paroled, Sisson-White relied on food stamps and found a job at a garden center.

“I was moving flats of pansies in the rain and snow,” she said.

Sisson-White also began doing volunteer work because she wanted to “give back.” That led to a job as an administrative assistant at Operation Hope. She was promoted to office manager and then director.

“It gets me to be able to reach out to so many people that just need a lot of care and direction and support,” she said. “They are not trying to get you for all you are worth or anything like that. They had a drug problem. Get over it. They need your support. They need your love. They need success. And that’s what we do.”

Sisson-White is pursuing a master’s degree in social work. She got married last year.

“We have a house,” she said. “Two dogs. Two cats. And my son wants to be a doctor.”

Asked if she thought life could ever be this good, she said, “No.”

She’s not just the face of Operation Hope. She’s the smiling face of Operation Hope.

“Sometimes we have clients who come back and stop in and say, ‘Hey I got a job! I’m doing good! I’ve got my bills caught up!’ It’s the little things that count. It’s not getting what you can anymore. It’s more about surviving and moving forward instead of moving back.”

 

CLICK for link