Donna May grew up in a happy home in Saint Louis, but as an adult, she got mixed up in an abusive relationship. One fateful night, injured, hysterical and crying, Donna ran her car into her abuser while trying to flee. He’d told her if she ever hurt him, she better kill him, so she wheeled around and ran him over.
Except the body on the street turned out to be her violent lover’s friend.
While incarcerated, determined to make a better life when she got out, she took classes from Lincoln University to add to the 18 credit hours she’d earned from St. Louis Community College at Forest Parks. In the meantime, her father passed away in July, 1996 and then her mother in January, 1997. Adding to the crushing grief of losing her parents, she worried for her children who had been in their care, but her family came through. Her oldest daughter, then 17, went to live with Donna’s grandmother, and her younger daughter, 14, moved in with Donna’s cousin.
In 1998 after being denied parole, another offender asked if Donna would share her background with a visitor involved in a law school working on behalf of people who were incarcerated for killing their abuser. Though Donna’s situation was unique, a student and professor took her case, speaking on her behalf at a parole hearing in 2000. The board granted her a two-year release date, and she arrived at Saint Mary’s Honor Center on August 22, 2002.
Donna and her daughters, now ages 23 and 19, eagerly got to know each other again, making family unification quite easy. It became Donna’s habit to go to church with her Aunt Jenny, and one Sunday, a member of the congregation encouraged her to visit a group meeting at a coffee shop. She loves coffee, so she attended and found herself in a “judge-free zone”. There she learned about the Dress for Success.
Though Donna knew the Center for Women in Transition (CWIT) only accepted non-violent offenders, she submitted an application anyway while still incarcerated. In talking to Barbara Baker at CWIT, Donna explained the steps she’d taken to create a better life; her college classes, becoming an effective computer coder for the Department of Corrections, how she had become reacquainted with her faith in God – and Ms. Baker accepted Donna to the program.
With a criminal record, Donna couldn’t get a job in computers, so she took a position working for a cranky boss at a thrift store making $5.15 an hour. During that time she attended weekly Let’s Start meetings, a support group for women, and monthly CWIT gatherings to set goals and work with a mentor. She came to understand she had choices, so Donna walked off the job at the thrift store when she decided her boss had berated her for the last time. That same day, she got hired at McDonald’s for $6.00 an hour – which meant she got a raise.
Donna left Saint Mary’s October 2002 and moved in with Aunt Jenny, and continued to improve her life. As a mentee with CWIT, she got health coverage and a therapist. With the help of her therapist and support from CWIT, through Vocational Rehabilitation she was able to attend Vatterott College for a year where she earned a certificate of competence with Microsoft Office. But it was also during this time, in 2003, that her aunt passed away. CWIT paid for Donna’s deposit and first month’s rent, so she could move into her own apartment.
Donna took a position working for The Women’s Safe House, an emergency shelter for abused women and their children, while she completed classes for her Associate of Arts degree in business at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. By then, she had completed the mentee program at CWIT, but she remained active by attending monthly gatherings.
In 2004, she became a customer service representative earning $10 an hour, the most she’d earned since returning home, where she stayed until the call center closed in March, 2006. In May, she graduated with her AA, but hard as she tried, she couldn’t find a job. Then she got a message on her phone to call CWIT.
“Hello, Donna,” said the director. “We have a job for you if you would like it.”
“God hears and answers prayers,” Donna says. “I could not believe it…as if the path to my future began with becoming a mentee [at CWIT] in 2002.”
The next day, June 7, 2006, Donna went to the CWIT office where she became the Administrative Assistant. By March, 2007, she was asked to be a Lead Case Manager. She had no idea what that meant, but she accepted the position – and the pay increase. In working with clients, women adjusting to life outside of prison, Donna had already enrolled in the University of Missouri-St Louis School of Social Work because she felt she needed more education. In addition, once Donna was released from parole in 2009, she became a mentor at CWIT, helping other formerly incarcerated women to set goals and take steps toward recreating their lives.
Despite her history, Donna also took a leap of faith in 2009 and applied for the Payroll Specialist position at CWIT.
She told Executive Director, Nancy Kelly, “…given the opportunity, I know I can learn [Quick Books] and be successful in this position.”
“Donna May,” Nancy said, “I am confident that whatever position I place you in, you will succeed.”
Those powerful words have helped to fuel Donna’s belief in herself ever since.
She remained the Payroll Specialist at CWIT until May, 2010 when she left for a paid practicum position in social work. Due to receive her bachelor’s degree, Donna recognized that effectively supporting people in navigating their complicated lives would require more training. She wanted to apply for graduate school, but writing the required essay terrified her.
“I never chose social work,” her story began, “social work chose me because of the challenges that I have come face-to-face with in my life…”
In August 2011, Donna started her journey in grad school and was able to perform her practicum in private practice where she learned a great deal about diagnoses and barriers for those with mental illness. Sadly, after she graduated with her MSW in December 2013, again she struggled to find a job.
Rejection after rejection, Donna kept reaching out until she eventually applied for a position with Connections to Success, an organization working to break the cycle of poverty with hope, resources and a plan. During her interview in April, 2013, she wore the same suit that had been assembled for her at Dress for Success back in 2002.
The program director hired Donna as a Life Transformation Coach, the perfect position for someone who had been a mentee and spent several years mentoring others at the Center for Women in Transition. Donna knew how to support people’s decisions and goals as well as help them to see what’s possible.
Less than a year later, Donna was promoted to Life Transformation Coaching Manager, and by April 2014, she shared a dual role as Program Director. Today, Donna oversees the database as the Fidelity and Compliance Manager at Connections for Success. She also works with the Restorative Justice Committee on the Board of Directors for The Center for Women in Transition.
And she makes people’s lives better every day.
Donna’s 8 Keys to a Great Life:
- God hears and answers prayers.
- We’re never stuck; we have choices.
- Past mistakes are in the past; focus on the future.
- Learn to think of yourself and present yourself in a positive light.
- Never let others define who you are.
- Never allow anyone to tell you what you can’t do.
- If you are ever in an abusive situation, please call for help. (ALIVE is a great resource, and there will be several others in your community.)
- Most important, follow Norman Peale’s advice: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”