After her release, Rhonda Bear wanted to find a way to help women coming out of prison. According to Bear, women are often released from jail at midnight on the day their sentence ends, at which many of them don’t have a place to go, much less someone to pick them up.
“If you went to jail in June and you were just getting out in February, and say you went to jail in shorts and flip-flops, you’re leaving in flip-flops,” Bear said. “If you don’t have any place to go, too bad. You’re leaving.”
Rhonda cites this severity within Oklahoma’s criminal justice system as one of the reasons she decided to open a halfway house in Claremore. Her original purpose was to offer temporary housing for up to two weeks, but she never intended to offer permanent housing.
“I believe God had another plan,” Bear said. “He was just getting my feet wet.”
Before she knew it, Bear said, she was managing six halfway houses in Claremore, some of which had been donated. Residents of each home are provided with at least a year of permanent housing if they are willing to live by a few faith-based guidelines.
But Bear’s journey to help former inmates didn’t stop there. Seven years after opening her first halfway house, Bear realized semi-permanent housing wasn’t enough to help women regain custody of their children.
“Employment was a problem,” Bear said. “When people go to prison and they get a felony conviction and they do their time, many people don’t let that be sufficient. They continue to hold that against them for a long time, which creates barriers to employment.”
She and a neighbor started coming up with ideas for ways to provide former inmates with employment opportunities, but she encountered a roadblock when her husband, who Bear admits has always been supportive, told her he couldn’t fund anymore of her endeavors because they were so costly.
“So I only had a small amount of money,” Bear said with a smile. “I had $300, and what can you do with $300? No a whole lot.”
With her $300, she rented a flea market booth in downtown Claremore, bought coffee beans, a coffee pot, a crockpot for apple cider and hot chocolate.
“And that’s how it got started,” Bear said. “We started She Brews with $300 and a whole lot of faith.”
Since opening in November 2012, She Brews has employed about 24 women, all of whom are currently employed, though most have moved on from working at the coffee shop. Three women, according to Bear, are currently in college.
From the beginning, Bear said she wanted to create a job opportunity that would allow the community to get to know former inmates to help remove the stigma attached to incarceration and provide an avenue for society to regain trust.
“She Brews has served that purpose,” Bear said. “Our community has gotten to know our women beyond their criminal past. Rogers State has partnered with us. They’ve offered 4-year scholarships to all our women who work here. The women have the opportunity to grow in their education – something they never thought was possible.”
Bear credits her success and the success of the women she has helped to the grace of God.
“God has restored my life,” Bear said. “He has given me back my children. He’s given me grandchildren. I help 21 women at a time who focus on getting their children back. We help them with employment. We help them with education. We help them set goals so that their lives and their children’s lives can be different.”
Bear also serves as a mentor to the women she employs, because she said it was transformative for her to have someone she knew believed in her.
“I have succeeded in their eyes,” Bear said. “And they want to follow in that example. They want to succeed too, so I’m their role model in that sense. I’m tough on them. I do not play games and I don’t let them play games. … Since I’ve walked that path, I can recognize when they’re trying to make excuses and I call them on it immediately. They don’t get by with much, because I want them to make it.”
Allie Frazier, a barista at She Brews, has experienced this first hand.
“Rhonda is amazing,” Frazier said. “She has given me the most amazing amount of hope. I came here completely broken. I came here a victim of domestic violence, and I wasn’t ready to work among the public. I was very anxious … but I’ve been able to share my story with other people. I’ve developed calmness, a peace inside of myself.
“I love the people who come in here. You don’t have bad customers. You don’t get complaints. … I love the message that this place sends, and I would really hope that there’s a lot more places like this open.”
Looking forward, Bear said if she could change one thing about Oklahoma’s legal justice system it would be excessive sentencing.
“I’m not against incarceration,” Bear said. “Incarceration can save your life because if prison doesn’t get your attention, what will?”
Nevertheless, Bear said, there are women in Oklahoma serving 15 to 30 years for their second drug charge, which could be for possession of $300-$500 of drugs.
Dr. Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor in the sociology department at Oklahoma State University, agrees that Oklahoma’s sentencing might be too harsh.
“So much of (the state’s high incarceration rate) is Oklahoma’s penalties for drugs use and drug possession, which are so much higher than the national average,” McLaughlin said. “So although the rates of crime are similar (to other states), I think the punishment that is attached to those crimes is much higher within this state. People who are committing crimes here as compared to other places have longer sentences, harsher sentences, etc. and repeat offenders have harsher sentences.”
Looking forward, Bear hopes to establish more She Brews coffee houses around the state and empower more ex-offenders to manage businesses and help other former inmates gain employment and education.
In addition to her work at the coffee shop and as executive director of six halfway homes, Bear teaches re-entry courses to over 1,000 women a year who are coming out of prison.
“Education empowers you, no matter who you are,” Bear said. “Education is huge at empowering (former inmates) and making them believe they can accomplish a goal, and that they can have a dream.”
Today, Bear has four grandchildren, and says she enjoys spending a lot of time as a grandmother.
“I say all the time that my grandchildren will not have the life that my children had,” Bear said. “My grandchildren’s lives are really different.”
Still, she says she is thankful for the hardships she’s experienced in life because they brought her to where she is today.
“It’s all God,” Bear said. “It’s all His. I know He is going to provide because He always has. It’s His ministry.”