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Bags To Butterflies: Giving A New Start To Formerly Incarcerated Women

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

It could happen to anyone. A wrong decision in a moment of panic can send anyone down the wrong path. Michelle's best friend's daughter committed a crime. She watched her develop. It's an unpredictable and unfortunate situation. But now her best friend's daughter is facing 7-15 years in prison for making a wrong decision.

Incarcerated individuals tend to leave someone behind. Which means most people on the outside have some form of experience with incarceration. But most people don't talk about it. Yet, the more Michelle spoke up about the issue, the more people connected to her story.

The Birth Of Bags To Butterflies

Her best friend's daughter's incarceration became the catalyst for Bags To Butterflies. She knows one day, her best friend's daughter is coming home. With that thought in mind, she wants incarcerated women to have connection and purpose upon their release. She is on a mission to empower formerly incarcerated women because they deserve the right to be self-sufficient.

Well, this isn't Michelle's background. She never set out explicitly to work with incarcerated women. However, she is familiar with how life's challenges are barriers to success. Born in Detroit, Michelle experienced a tough divorce after 23 years of marriage with five children at home. She credits, having a supportive circle is what saved her. She recalls crying in a hotel room, asking God for answers. And something told her to trust and have faith. After working in corporate America for most of her life, in 2018, she decided to take early retirement to serve others.

At Bags To Butterflies, incarcerated women use repurposed wood to create beautiful looking handbags. As an artist (glassmaker) herself, Michelle understands the power of creating.

She fuses art with a purpose. She believes if women have the opportunity to be employed immediately following their release from prison, it will reduce the recidivism rates. These women face barriers, such as housing and employment. This creates difficulties in becoming self-sufficient.

Bags To Butterflies also meets on Saturdays with the women at a local church. The women work on community service projects. They talk about their lives and the changes that have happened while they were gone. The women are encouraged to let go of their past so they can live life to the fullest and fly. Hence the name "bags to butterflies." This is a representation of the bags in itself.

The butterflies represent change. The handbags are small. In essence, if you're going to carry the baggage, then let's downsize it and carry it gracefully. The women relate to the handbags and understand they no longer need to bring that baggage around.

What Are You Most Proud Of

Michelle is proud of the program. "If I could change one life through this, just to see the women blossom when they come to our organization is worth it." The women work in 400 Sq. Ft. of space.

The process of creating is therapeutic for the women. It provides them with a sense of purpose and allows them to express themselves. To have someone take them by the hand and say, "You can do this, you got this." It means the world to them.

What Were Some Of Your Biggest Challenges

Bags To Butterflies is a newer organization. It's been in existence for only four years. The hardest part of the process is space and community. The community is having a hard time embracing the organization and its initiatives. Michelle says, "These women and men who are incarcerated could be our sisters, our neighbors."

The donors are concerned the women will steal or hurt them. But Michelle says, "They are people just like all of us, I don't judge them. I don't ask them about their past. I ask them, where do you see yourself from this point forward?" She would like the women to engage with the community more to tell their stories.

Michelle shared a heartwarming story about a woman who stopped going to the program. When she finally connected with her, the woman said she was scared because everything was new. But also, commuting to the program frightened her. Michelle picked her up and took her to the program for her first day. These women need someone to believe in them and some encouragement.

She recalled another time when a woman bought one of the bags. She shared a story about her son. He was in prison for ten years, but he never wrote her back. After hearing the women's stories, she found closure as to why her son never responded. He passed away in prison.

Michelle would like to introduce more programs and teach the women the necessary skills to become entrepreneurs. But, the lack of funding continues to slow them down. They sell their handbags at community events and fairs. Winning the pitch competition is a step forward.

Walk Us Through Preparing For The Pitch Competition

Michelle has pitched before. But she didn't win. Now, she has more confidence to stand in front of an audience to share her story. Michelle says, Shelly Bell, the founder of Black Girl Ventures, "Shelly has an awesome personality. She made us feel warm and welcomed. Everyone's communication was great. She encouraged us to do the best that we can."

Michelle almost didn't pitch that night. That week there was Detroit homecoming, and she felt too exhausted to attend. But she thought about Charlene.

Her most promising student passed away from breast cancer recently. She spent 41 years of her life incarcerated. When she asked Charlene how she survived, she said, "I never gave up."

Michelle heard her voice over and over again in her head. She felt she had to do her best for the women.

What Advice Do You Have For Newbie Pitchers

Michelle says, "Never give up. You have to be passionate about what you're speaking about, if it's something you're passionate about, then talk about it from your heart. I love the ladies. I love what I do, so it's easy for me. Practice your pitch and stay true to your mission. And share your story."

There were many setbacks at first. First, a local church allowed her to house the program there in kind. She was promised a building that was under construction, but it fell through. It happened three more times. Each time the program was supposed to move into another building, something prevented them from moving forward. But as an organization, she continued to push forward. Currently, she can only accommodate four women at a time. But the goal is to support at least six to eight women.

What Is A Necessary Skill For Business Owners

Michelle encourages entrepreneurs to have the determination to push through every situation no matter what. To have faith that everything is going to fall into place. Every business owner needs to have tenacity. And to not be afraid to ask for resources. Find ways to connect with the right people in the right places.

What Is Your Favorite Mantra

Michelle says her favorite mantra is, "This too shall pass, this is a test, and I am going to pass it." As a leader, people look to you to see how you deal with things. It's essential to model situations that you want to see play out in your organization.

What Is Your Self-Care Routine

Michelle runs every morning with her running group. She wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and runs five miles a day. Michelle goes to the beauty schools to receive her facials and manicures.

She then finds activities she enjoys doing at home or outside. Sometimes it's as simple as sitting down and doing nothing. But she makes it a focus to find time for herself.

What Is Your Favorite Book & App

Although Michelle doesn't read much, she reads the bible often. Her favorite Psalm is the 91st Psalm, "The Lord is guiding my steps. Seek refuge in him."

Michelle's favorite app is the Cash App! She spends a lot of time in creative spaces and researching ways to enhance their products.

What Is A Food Item That You Have A Hard Time Saying No To

Potato chips and hot sauce.

What's Next?

Expansion is Bags To Butterflies focus. They want to serve six to ten women at a time. She wants to introduce new products and new services. They don't only create handbags but provide more services to the women they serve and to the community. Bags To Butterflies create decorative arts award, urns for funeral homes, and mats for corner offices.

She hopes to bring the community into their space to facilitate conversations that create more bonding instead of division.

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