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Volunteer enrollment OPEN for 2 fall prison projects!

Posted on July 15, 2019, by Stephanie

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We wanted to start your week off with the good news that we’re now enrolling volunteers for 2 of our fall prison projects!

If you’d like to volunteer at one (or both!) of the prisons we serve in Chowchilla, CA, we invite you to do that between now and Sunday, July 28. 

These two prisons include:

  • Valley State Prison (VSP), a men’s prison: September 27-29, 2019
  • Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), a women’s prison: October 25-27, 2019

General Schedule for Both Weekends:

“One Accord” Gathering (in person): Friday night            

Pathways to Freedom Workshop: Saturday & Sunday

Volunteer Enrollment Deadline: Sunday, July 28, 2019

These prisons are right across the street from one another, and are the ones we’ve been serving for the longest! Even if you’re coming for the very first time, returning for these weekend prison projects always feels like “coming home” for our volunteer community.

To enroll, please “submit your intention” for volunteering at VSP here and/or CCWF here

By “submitting your intention,” you’re committing to being present for the entire project–from Friday night orientation to the end of the workshop Sunday.

If you feel called to join us this fall, we’d love to have you!

(Don’t forget! The last date to enroll to volunteer at both of these prison workshops is Sunday, July 28. Register for VSP (men’s prison) here and/or CCWF (women’s prison) here now.)

Honoring a treasured volunteer: Darren Janger

Posted on July 9, 2019, by Stephanie

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Darren Janger was a long-time treasured volunteer and former Board member. He left the board when he became too ill from lung cancer to continue his service. 

We will miss Darren, and are so grateful to have known him and shared in the beauty of his heart. 💜

The funeral will be at Hillside Mortuary in Culver City, this Thursday July 11th at 1 pm. 

Please join us in sending blessings of loving & Light to his soul, his wife Shelly Itzak Janger, and their baby daughter Jordyn. 

Bonnie, David & the FTC Team 💜

Join us today for our very first FTC Community video call

Posted on July 9, 2019, by Stephanie

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Hello friends!

We hope you’re having a wonderful start to your week!

We’re reaching out now to send you a little reminder that something really exciting is happening in just a few hours….

We’re gathering for our very first FTC Community video call today at 11am Pacific. 

Our Director of Operations, Sara, will be hosting this (and future, monthly calls) to welcome everyone into our new, online community: Mighty Networks. (Here’s where to join, if you haven’t already– it only takes a few minutes!) 

(Mighty Networks is a free, private online community space that we set up to connect, galvanize, and support everyone who loves FTC.) 

What: FTC Community Kick-Off Call

Where: Zoom (join via your phone or computer)

Join via computer here

Or join by phone:

        +1 669 900 6833 US (San Jose)

        +1 929 205 6099 US (New York)

        +1 647 558 0588 Canada

Meeting ID: 450 829 627

Find your local number

When: Tuesday, July 9 at 11am Pacific (that’s today!) for 1 hour

Why: To introduce you to our Mighty Network and share with you some of the wonderful things we have in store this year.

See you at our FTC Community Kick-Off Call!

Can’t make it live? No worries! While there will be the opportunity to interact with our community when you come live, we know that’s not always possible. 

We’ll post the link to the recording in Mighty Networks within a few days of each monthly call. (Sorry, we won’t be able to email the recordings out to everyone. So we encourage you to join our Network here now.)

July News: Join Our First Community Call!

Posted on July 2, 2019, by Stephanie

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CIW June 2019 Volunteer Team

Welcome to July! Now that the ‘June gloom’ has passed and the summer sun is shining here in Santa Barbara, we are taking stock and celebrating a LOT! 

We just returned from leading our “Pathways to Freedom – Breaking the Cycle” workshop down at the California Institution for Women (CIW), where we were blessed to serve with 45 volunteers (10 of whom were brand-new!). Chemin and Stanley, facilitators-in-training, led the weekend beautifully. For all of us, it was a job well done – full of grace, heart, and even… miracles!

One of the most moving sharings of the weekend came on Sunday morning. One of our participants shared that, while she’s been in prison for 23 years, this was her first workshop with us. 

The limiting cycle she wanted to break was resentment. Through listening to her heart, she was able to release the resentment she’s been holding around the murder of her child. She felt resentment towards society for punishing her with a long sentence while the person who killed her son is still free.

She shared, “This workshop taught me the importance of letting go to heal pain. Thank you. This not only healed my body but also my spirit by nurturing it with new hopes and possibilities.”

It doesn’t get much better than that!

What We’re Celebrating This Month

  • Our 2018 annual report is here! Last year we became a top-rated charity by Great Nonprofits and  served 610 (324 women, 286 men) incarcerated individuals with 32,594 hours of FTC programs provided by a team of 198 dedicated volunteers. 
  • At the end of May, we visited these sites for the first time to meet with prison staff and get a tour of the grounds. It felt as if both facilities are very ready for this work, which is exciting! Plans are now underway for scheduling workshops at both prisons, as well as for working with a small group of dedicated inmates at SATF to help us initiate a Youth Offender Program (YOP) there.
  • The YOP program pairs newly incarcerated 18-22 year olds with older men who serve as positive role models (and who will be trained by FTC to mentor these young adults to successfully re-enter society). 

Last year, a member of the SATF staff (who’s in charge of their YOP program) reached out to us. He was hungry for support to assist these young men, and he heard about our YOP program at Valley State Prison. 

He arranged an opportunity for us to meet with four of his YOP inmate mentors during our SATF visit. This was definitely one of the highlights of our tour!  We were deeply touched by the heartfelt sincerity and eagerness in these men to work with us in getting their YOP program off the ground. 

  • We have a robust series of ILTAG classes happening, both at VSP and at CIW. In the former, we have 171 men participating in levels 1-3. At CIW, there are a total of 56 women now participating. 
  • We’re also slated to both start leading ILTAG at CCWF and supporting a youth program for the women at CIW!
  • On the marketing front, we’re making headway with some bigger projects to really help us move the needle on expanding our mission. A new documentary about FTC is in the works (you can see a clip of it here). And we’re also updating our logo, marketing materials, and website. 
  • We’ve moved into a bigger office to accommodate a growing team and have made it more functional and “homey.” If you’re in town, please stop in to visit and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with us!
  • We created new, online FTC community on “Mighty Networks.” To help connect, support, and galvanize our community, we’re gathering now in our brand-new online community. 

Be sure to join us here today so you don’t miss our first community call on Tuesday, July 9 at 11am Pacific! 

Details for how to join the video call are available once you sign up here

  • We’re hiring! FTC is in search of a Program Coordinator, who will primarily work with the two, new prisons we’re partnering with. Learn more here.  

Thank you so much for being part of our community. And a very happy 4th of July to all those celebrating!

An interview with our new Director of Operations (and her dog)!

Posted on May 17, 2019, by Stephanie

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March and April were milestone months for us here in The Freedom to Choose family. Not only did we honor our official fifteenth anniversary (more formal celebrations are to come this fall!) but we also welcomed a new team member and led our spring workshop at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).

Even though our volunteer team at CCWF was much smaller than we’ve had in many years, we were mighty and our journey together was grace-full!

A participant sharing on our final afternoon reflected this. Maria voiced that she has been coming to FTC workshops for the past eleven years, but that this one would be her last. Using the skills she found in the workshops to center herself and speak her deep truth, Maria went in front of the board recently and was found “suitable” for parole.

Through all she has learned with us, she said, she was able to “heal the shattered parts of herself” and is now ready to walk into the free world as a whole, empowered woman.

The Volunteer Team at CCWF April 2019

Plus, Sara Avant Stover, our new Director of Operations, also joined our team in April and attended her first prison project with us at CCWF. We’d love to introduce her to you now!

Meet Sara Avant Stover

FTC: We know you just moved to Santa Barbara from Boulder, CO a few months ago. Why the move?

Sara: The short answer is that I followed my heart. After having lived in Boulder for ten years, I was ready for a change. While Colorado is a beautiful place to live on a number of levels, for the past few years my heart was urging me to move out to California so I could live near the ocean. I explored a number of places along the California coastline, but when I drove into Santa Barbara a couple of years ago, my whole body screamed: “This is it!” So, just before New Years this year, I made the leap.

FTC: How did you learn about FTC? Were you involved with USM or prison work in the past?

Sara: I’ve been a student of spiritual psychology for a couple of decades, but I had never heard of USM until I starting working here. I had also never been into a prison before, although I’ve been involved in bringing transformational education– similar to what you all teach here– to empower others (and myself!) deconstruct their own “inner” prisons. After I moved here I started looking to get involved with some local non-profits. While doing that, I saw the job posting for my position and it felt like a really good fit on a number of levels.

FTC: How was your first prison experience at CCWF then?

Sara: It was amazing. I was blown away by the kindness and caliber of all the volunteers and facilitators– both individually and as a team. I said to Bonnie and David on our way home from the workshop that I experience everyone as having such a pure heart. I felt honored to be in the presence of such loving, selfless service. Also, I had a powerful experience sitting in exercises with the participants, in what I was able to offer them and, even more so, in the wisdom they shared with me.

FTC: What are some of the things you’ll be doing in your role as Director of Operations here?

Sara: My role here, funded by a recent grant we received (yay!), is multifaceted. Bonnie and David first described my function as being a “hub” for FTC. I’ll be helping to build and refine the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of our team and systems, serving as Volunteer Coordinator (I have some cool things in the works for everyone!), hiring some new team members to help with the two new prisons we’re working with (SATF and CMC), and also offering support in other areas like strategy, vision, marketing, and development.

FTC: What are a couple of interested, non-work related things that you can share with us about you?

Sara: I have the most amazing dog in the world (I know I’m biased). Her name is Sadie and she is a rescue– a lab and an Aussie mix. If you come visit the office, you’ll likely meet her! I’m also going to be teaching a weekly women’s yoga & meditation class at Yoga Soup in mid-June. Women, you’re welcome to come!

FTC: Is there anything else you want us to know?

Sara: Yes, I’m very grateful to be here! Everyone has been so warm, kind, and welcoming so far, and I really appreciate that. Prior to joining FTC, I prayed to be used more fully by Spirit. Our country, our world, and our planet are in dire straits right now, and I wanted to collaborate with others and put my energy and gifts in more direct service to the solutions we most need right now. I feel that, by being here, my prayer has been answered! Also, if there’s anything that I can do to support you (or if you just want to say hi), please feel free to reach out. You can find me at sara@freedomtochooseproject.org. I look forward to getting to know everyone, and you’ll definitely be hearing more from me through our emails and blog!

——————————————————————————–

For the past twenty years, Sara Avant Stover has devoted herself to public service, spiritual growth, and transformational education. Best-selling author of The Way of the Happy Woman and The Book of SHE, she served as the founder and CEO of her own pioneering company prior to joining The Freedom to Choose Project.

Sara graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Columbia University’s all-women’s Barnard College. After a cancer scare in her early twenties, she moved to Thailand, where she embarked on a decade-long healing and spiritual odyssey throughout Asia. Also the creator of the world’s first Women’s Yoga Teacher Training, Sara’s work has uplifted the lives of tens of thousands of women worldwide and has been featured in Yoga Journal, the Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Natural Health and on ABC, NBC, and CBS.

A moment of serendipity reminds me that Spirit is in charge…

Posted on March 21, 2019, by Stephanie

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Co-Founder and FTC Facilitator Bonnie Paul shares her experience on FTC’s 15th Anniversary

L-R: Arlene Stepputat (Founding Board Member), Kristianne & Bonnie

With the inclusion of two new prison facilities to our program schedule, a few of us gathered in what is a rare in-person meeting at the FTC office to discuss expansion plans. We have many meetings at FTC but for ease and convenience most of our meetings tend to happen online in video conferences. Not only were we meeting in person, but it just so happened that this meeting also fell on the 15th anniversary (March 20-21) of our very first Freedom to Choose workshop, held at Valley State Prison for Women in 2004. 

The volunteer team at FTC’s first prison workshop in March, 2004.

An hour into the meeting, we heard a knock on the door (also very rare), and in walked… Kristianne! As we happily hugged our dear friend and unexpected guest (we hadn’t seen each other at the office in 2 years), we suddenly realized: this was also the 15th anniversary of the day we first met – while she was a lifer at Valley State Prison for Women! 

We cried tears of gratitude for all that we have shared, and how we have all grown together over these 15 years. Kristianne, like hundreds of other men and women we’ve met, has created a beautiful life of service in the “free world.” We were stunned and touched at this beautiful unplanned reunion and how it all perfectly came together… our staff member Molly had even lit an array of candles unexpectedly… so it felt very much like Spirit brought us together for a special party to celebrate our very special anniversary…

For those who don’t know Kristianne, here is a FTC video, highlighting her beautiful story.

On our 15th Anniversary, we want to share a special blessing of gratitude for the thousands of people – volunteers, donors and participants – that have been part of FTC’s success. Thank you!! 💖

We are growing – come join us and become a volunteer! 

Our next Service Learning Training takes place on April 6-7, 2019 in Los Angeles. Come join the Party!

A video message from our unplanned reunion.

I feel that I am part of a movement

Posted on December 26, 2018, by Stephanie
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A sharing from a FTC program participant at Valley State Prison (VSP)

Having attended The Freedom to Choose Project’s (FTC) workshops [and programs] has helped me to completely alter my thinking, actions, and manner of living. The exposure to the loving and safe environment has also affected a large portion of this prison.

The experiences that I have had during the past several years has altered my entire manner of living. I used to attend groups because it was what I knew that the parole board would expect of me when I go in front of them. Now I have an interest in improving myself for my own needs. The FTC method agrees with me on a deeply spiritual level and I relish each and every experience that I have had and will have in the future. There is not enough time available for me to express how much the project has done for me, but I will continue to participate as often as possible.

There is a community of like-minded individuals that has formed from the exposure of the FTC manner of education. We acknowledge one another and have a connection that continues to grow stronger as time passes. I feel that I am part of a movement that has the power to alter how prisons run and I will continue to share my experiences with anyone who asks. I cannot think of anyone who attends the groups regularly who has gotten in trouble for anything serious recently. The program seems to affect everyone who participates in a positive manner. I have had many conversations with the volunteers who come in to share the healing and they seem to get as much from the experience. 

I would like to thank everyone who supports this worthy cause. I will continue to participate in any and all FTC related events. Thank you again.

by Matthew
FTC large workshop participant since 2014 & Mentor Support Group program graduate

FTC has a Mentor Support Group (ILTAG) Program which is held every Sunday at Valley State Prison. To volunteer at this event, please visit our News/Events Page for dates and information on how to sign up.

What Does It Mean?

Posted on December 6, 2018, by Stephanie

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A program participant from Valley State Prison explains the inspiration behind the name – The “Freedom To Choose” Project – and how it has shaped the way he sees and experiences life.

For many, healing and truly learning from life’s lessons involve reawakening from numbness – a survival mechanism to cope from violent experiences, where past hurts and learned behaviors can be addressed and emotions experienced with accountability and compassion.

From left to right, FTC Facilitators David Paul, Chemin Bernard and Bonnie Paul.

 

The Freedom to Choose Project (FTC) is based on Viktor Frankl’s theory that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What I have discovered practicing the many skills that FTC has taught me is that I can greatly expand that “space” by listening with my heart and allowing my most natural state, which is love, influence my decision for response.

Viktor also noticed that even though each prisoner in the concentration camp experienced the same stimulus, only a few survived. This was rooted in the freedom of choice. This holds true today.

[In prison] I see success and liberation all around me and what separates me from those who still experience bondage is my unbreakable will which is at the forefront of my consciousness and strengthened by my awareness of spirit.

This movement brought by saints into the prison system is already changing the culture. An awakening is taking place, the captives are experiencing a freedom not bound by anything visible – we are feeling, we are experiencing our emotions with a new intellect and choosing to live our lives with positive intentions. And so it is!

by Drew
FTC large workshop participant since 2013 & Mentor Support Group program graduate

FTC has a Mentor Support Group (ILTAG) Program which is held every Sunday at Valley State Prison. To volunteer at this event, please visit our News/Events Page for dates and information on how to sign up.

Before you came into my life

Posted on December 4, 2018, by Stephanie

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An expression of gratitude from a FTC program participant at Valley State Prison and an example of why punishment alone is ineffective in inspiring true change. When people have a low sense of self-worth and self-care, they have low expectations of themselves, their lives, and the role they play in the world.

FTC provides programs that teaches foundational life skills, fostering healing and transformation from the inside out.

Before you came into my life, I was lost in a dark world. No one knew the pain and suffering I carried for thirty years except you.

Nonetheless, you decided to open your heart and hold me tight into your many arms. You decided not to judge me or criticize me for the unresolved issues that were holding me back. Instead you embraced me with kindness and thoughtfulness.

You showed me love, compassion and belonging. That’s why you grew so deeply into my heart. Your intentions from the very beginning were good and pure.

I must let you know that because of you, you changed my life, attitude, and beliefs.

The dark path I took when I left home doesn’t seem lonely and depressing anymore. When I see the facilitators, David and Bonnie, I feel that my mother, who is in heaven, sent you to me. When I talk to the volunteers – Karen, Joyce, or Bernadette, more angels come, and it makes me feel like I’m already in heaven. The people from FTC are people sent from the highest good to teach, guide, and help me in my recovery. I want to personally thank you. May your higher power bless you daily.

by Alejandro
FTC large workshop participant since 2014 & Mentor Support Group program graduate
Alejandro has since been released from prison.

FTC has a Mentor Support Group (ILTAG) Program which is held every Sunday at Valley State Prison. To volunteer at this event, please visit our News/Events Page for dates and information on how to sign up.

My Prison

Posted on November 7, 2018, by Stephanie

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“In the environments that we come from – gangs and broken homes, dysfunctional families – there’s no compassion, not much love, it’s not encouraged – especially in our gang culture.

We have to be tough, we have to be angry, we have to be aggressive, we have to be violent. …to cope with the stress and hurt and the chaos and insanity of living a life like that. And being able to put our guard down and have that compassion was very mind-blowing.”

– Henry (formerly incarcerated) on FTC’s impact at Valley State Prison

 

A FTC program participant creatively shares his experience that lead him to prison (internally and externally) and his journey of self-discovery and healing.

 

My Prison

In the pit of darkness and despair
Fear and loneliness were my friends

I searched for the door
But it was sealed
There was only I and the monsters created by others
By those whose needs came before my innocence

So my mind designed chambers
I hid in one
Hurt, pain and anger were stored apart

I lost myself in distraction
Abandonment and pain fed anger, however
Violence and self-destruction quick on their heels

My loss compelled me to distribute pain
Others would pay the price
Set by the careless souls who tortured mine

So I moved in self-induced obscurity
Repelling any sign of kindness
Fearing further wounds
Actions led to added prisons – mental, emotional, spiritual, physical

The pit became darker, deeper, harder, colder
Isolation was safety
Rabid dog
Hurt first, hurt fast, hurt least

So I thought

Morphing incremental into what I needed to be
The moment was God

Yet, freedom was offered
By those who seemed to understand

It required unsealing the door
Surprised at finding its key in my closed fist
I let go

My soul breathed
For the first time in long, cold years
Will to be whole the sole strength to skirt weakness

Vulnerability
In awe at the power held within this action
I let go

Healing, growth, strength, clarity
Willingness to face my destiny

Pain is my gift
Understanding it, my power

My circle grows stronger
My paths materialize
Yet, shocked that some were there all along

So I now accept
What I see in the mirrored images of me
In the eyes of the close ones

I allowed for success
And discard the tape my father recorded

I now walk in the light of the truth
I now give and I take
And I trust
And I love

I now live.

– Albert
FTC large workshop participant, Valley State Prison