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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!

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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

Elephants & Doves

Posted on October 29, 2018, by Stephanie

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The following art has been dedicated to The Freedom to Choose Project (FTC) by our talented participants at Valley State Prison.

Dedicated artwork by Oscar (FTC program participant since 2014)

 

Elephants & Doves

Deliberately I turned my face aside
But he, elephant-like, remained in the room
Even my secret spaces occupied
And with nary a sign of departing soon

Doing as beasts are bound,
He fulfilled his simple, elephantine role-
Lumbering and bumped around-
Upsetting all the furniture of my soul.

Embarrassed by this domestic horror
And scared he’d frighten them
I folded myself into a corner
Inviting no guests in

Then I found myself one day
In a gym amid some curious spectacle
Wondering if I should stay
I sat down and I waited, scared and skeptical

Purple people spoke of Freedom to Choose
And besieged me with love, acceptance and space
Figuring I had little else to lose
I opened creaking doors to this strange new grace

Love that I realised reflected my own
Filled and healed dark places with light
I watered with tears these seeds that were sewn
And through them gained new, loving sight

When I looked at myself
Through the lens of such love
That elephant of mine
Became a little dove

by Parker
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.

My Purpose in Life

Posted on October 22, 2018, by Stephanie

By Michael Lattimore

In my very first experience with The Freedom to Choose Project (FTC), I truly understood what ‘Change from the Inside’ meant. I thought I was going inside a prison to bring hope and inspiration to others. I discovered that I was also truly serving myself by sharing the human experience of saying to another, “I am a human with feelings and life challenges just like you.”

FTC has allowed me to make good on a childhood promise I made to myself many years ago – that when I grew up, I would be a part of bringing peace and love to this world.

I witnessed a tremendous amount of violence growing up on Chicago’s Southside during the 60’s. I survived several major riots, the Vietnam war, gang warfare and even more in the urban street environment.

Being a witness to mankind’s inhumanity to man so early in life, I became aware that there was inside of us a great Light, revealed through our eyes, and designed to awaken all of us to Love as the healing balm.

In FTC I have rediscovered how to tap into my inner Light and to see this same Goodness in others. I’ve been able to practice the power of listening and honoring the value of another human life. Most fulfilling to me is the fact that I have uncovered my own purpose and mission in life to make a difference in the life of another by bringing light and love into the world in a very special way.

Not many people on the planet can say that they have found the meaning of their life. The Freedom to Choose Project has helped me to find mine.


Michael Lattimore, FTC Board Member & Facilitator
(FTC volunteer since 2009)

 

Who Am I?

Posted on October 8, 2018, by Stephanie

A participant shares his experience at our recent Pathways to Freedom workshop.

“I love the work that FTC does, for myself personally, and for the greater inmate population, and also for those amazing people who devote their time to coming into prisons and bringing their love. My life has been changed forever from the experiences I have had, relationships I have formed, and wisdom that I have learned. I am indebted to the organization and people involved. Thank you so much.

This workshop was interesting because it focused on issues that I believe were on the minds of many people, including myself. Most specifically, was the issue of race and its relationship to identity and judgment. For myself, there was always a feeling that when I was participating in FTC that I was getting certain aspects of my experiences out and into processing, but that there were certain other parts that I felt like I needed to get out, but I couldn’t find the space to express because that space had not been yet opened up within the community. The last thing that I would ever want to do is be disruptive or make other participants feel uncomfortable, and so to a certain degree, I kept those things to myself. However, when dialoguing about the FTC experience with other inmates and volunteers, the issue of diversity kept coming up; diversity in the spectrum of volunteers that were represented at events, diversity in opinions and experiences, and diversity in the subjects that we were tackling in our meetings.

At this last event, Stanley’s sharing about identity was a case in point for me about how diversity can open up new insights and pathways. He talked about how before he had gained consciousness about who or what he was as a person, there was an understanding that his body and skin were already communicating with the outer world and that he was being identified based on that. There was an awareness there of having an identity that is not based on your own creation, but based on choice that is rooted in survival. I began to think about how my identity as an inmate is based on these same principles – that even if I decided that I didn’t want to be identified as a prisoner, that there would be batons, handcuffs and ultimately bullets to remind me that I couldn’t identify with being anything else. There was a realization in that moment that I have to choose this identity, or be subjected to violence, and possibly death, much in the same way that I must choose to identify with being a racialized subject in order to preserve my body. What that brought forward for me in that moment was that much of this work that we do in FTC starts with the question of “who am I?”, and that for many of us, that question is so difficult, so complicated, so fraught with contradictions. For many of us it unearths the most terrible traumas, reveals uncomfortable truths.

Stanley Bernard, FTC Facilitator (FTC Volunteer since 2007)

I was also pleasantly surprised to see the reaction to Stanley’s testimony in the sharing section of the program, which I believe was collectively very emotional and powerful – a reckoning that we can all connect with humanity and love, even though our experiences may be divergent. One of the most important pieces of my experience in this program is the aspect of renewal; this idea that every SundayI can return to the source, engage in an exchange of ideas with my fellow brothers and sisters in a space created by love, understanding, and acceptance, and create new traditions, create new pathways, leaving with an understanding that those new traditions reverberate, have ripple effects, and change the world, not an abstract, but in perceptible ways.”

 – A.C., Valley State Prison Large Workshop Participant – September, 2018 & ILTAG 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.

Helping Each Other to Heal

Posted on October 1, 2018, by Stephanie

A volunteer shares her experience at our recent Pathways to Freedom workshop.

I want to express my gratitude and appreciation for the incredible and heart opening workshop you devised for the VSP weekend. I applaud you for your courage and willingness to discuss the subjects of racism and diversity which are real areas of challenge for our society, even for our conscious communities. As all of the facilitators stood in front of us and shared your own stories and experiences, I felt sense of opening and courage that was really profound. I grew up in environments where I did not see many people look like me or understand my cultural experiences, but I knew we are all the same. I love this work so much because it gets to the truth of who we really are and invites us to embrace our divine humanity with love and acceptance.

In my trios, I observed men with sometimes rigid bodies and distant stares light up with bright and focused eyes and beautiful smiles after the exercises. The awe I felt seeing them transform before my eyes was heart opening. On several occasions, some men told me that they wouldn’t have even considered sitting down talking to another race and how different they felt after the exercises. I, too, shared their enlightenment as I became aware of my own judgments of things I thought were small and opportunities for releasing false beliefs with compassion and forgiveness.

I’ve been to several Freedom to Choose workshops in the past and they’ve been wonderful. This one touched my heart deeply and the joy I saw on the inmates faces was out of this world.

Thanks again for your willingness to bring a challenging subject out into the open with love and kindness for individual and communal healing.

Merry Parrish (FTC Volunteer since 2012)