I work at the Arouet Foundation where we teach women who are in prison and those transitioning back into society, how to live a better well-rounded life. We help them heal their minds, bodies, and souls – so they may reunite with their families and succeed professionally. We see them leave behind old lives, destructive habits, and toxic friends and family so, they can provide the best life for their children. We see a lot of heartbreak as they work through the consequences of their actions. But, we also see amazing transformations as they heal from the inside out. Many of their stories are heartbreaking. Some of their children do not visit or call while they are in prison, some fear they will never be able to make amends with loved ones, and some see their children making the same mistakes they made.

Reuniting with families is a difficult and often messy process. We are all humans and we are all messed up in one way or another. We want to do better than our parents, but often fall into the same patterns. The triumph and joy felt by these amazing women once they are released and successfully reconnect with their families outweighs any sorrow. A friend told me that her son was recently arrested. My heart ached, but she was happy.  He was safe in jail. She could sleep and not worry about a late-nigh knock on the door, informing her that he was dead. Recently, I realized I chose to work with disadvantaged women because of how my Mother raised me. She, like many of the women I work with, needed to cut ties with her family so she could live a better life. I cannot imagine the strength, courage, tenacity, or faith that it takes to walk away from all that you know. I am simply amazed at all the women who find the courage to start over and create wonderful lives for their families.

I will be the first to admit that Mother’s Day has always been a difficult holiday for me to celebrate. I am not a mother, though I have always wanted to become one. Instead, I am a Favorite Aunt, Godmother & Fairy Godmother to several amazing children. My Mother detests Mother’s Day and hates going to church on that Sunday because she feels like she will never measure up to the perfect examples in the sermon. Our family often skipped church on Mother’s Day. We took a relaxing springtime drive up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Utah to enjoy brunch on the patio of Ruth’s Dinner. We devoured the sky-high buttermilk biscuits and homemade raspberry jam while we laughed and joked with each other or stole bites of each other’s plates. My Mother loves lazy Sunday drives with clear blue skies white poufy clouds, a cold Pepsi, and snacks. She loves to have her children and grandchildren around her. But, she also likes it when we leave her popcorn alone so she can watch her “murder and mayhem” shows. She loves a clean house, good chocolate, and fresh flower bouquets my Father created for her. Our “Lady” can bake up a household of heavenly goodies that will cause you to gain weight by looking at them. As her oldest child, I agree with her that she is far from perfect – but she is extremely amazing in her own ways.

My Mother was disowned as a teenager when she joined a different religion than one her family practiced. At seventeen, she moved in with a family from church, who loved her like their own daughter. But, more importantly, they loved me and all my siblings as their grandchildren. I love my foster Grandparents and miss them dearly, especially this Mother’s Day.  I was about ten-years-old when I found out that my “extra family” was not my flesh and blood.  But, I am their Granddaughter and no one who can change my mind about that fact.  When you asked my Grandpa about my Mother joining their family, he would always say in his slow Southern drawl, “Well, Sweetheart I always wanted a girl and that’s how God gave me one.” My Grandpa once told me, “Some families are like trees and ours is like a berry bramble. With a tree, you know the fruit will all be the same, but you’re always surprised with a berry bramble. If the pie turns out perfectly, does it matter what the fruit looks like?” I grew up knowing that my family will always be made up of those who love me – and it doesn’t matter if we are kin or not.

I cannot image the amount faith it took for my Mother to leave behind her family and bravely move into a strange home. I cannot image the strength of her love and hope, as she continually reached out to her family over decades, and finally reconciled with her mother and sisters. My Mother loves and serves all those around her. She welcomes everyone into her home and her cookie jar is always full. Just like my Grandpa, she collects strangers into her life and loves them like they were her own family. Because of both of their example, I do the same in creating my own urban family. I am the woman I am today, because of the strength of my amazing Mother and all the women that have crossed my path and influenced me for good. I look at her example and realize, I work where I work, because of her. I see her story of her loss of family and reconciliation repeated in the lives of the women I serve. I know they can reunite with their family because I watched my mother do the same thing. It may take months, years, or decades to rebuild the love and trust needed in a healthy family, but it is possible. I have proof.

When casual acquaintances ask me if I am scared or depressed to go into the prison, I tell them “no.” When I am there, I do not see a roomful of “dangerous” women; I see mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters and friends. These extraordinary women taught me how to become a strong woman, who fights for those they love. They showed me how to let go of hurt and laugh at adversity, frustration, and disappointment. Inside the prison walls, I witness hope in action. I see women learning to become accountable for their actions and working through difficult consequences. Life is often hard for women – we take on too much, we believe we need to be perfect, we stretch ourselves out too thin. The greatest lessons learned from the women in prison is that I am enough and I do not need to be perfect. When life knocks you down, you need to get up and try again. I love these brave women who are reinventing themselves and becoming the fantastic mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. As they heal and reunite with their families, they change the world, one family at a time. Happy Mother’s Day to all the strong and beautiful women in my life.

Written by Arouet Staff Member – Mary Nicole Barber