CLAREMORE – Rhonda Bear comes out from behind the counter of She Brews, a coffee shop in downtown Claremore, to gently tell one of her two grandsons to be nice to the other. The owner of She Brews, which has been open since November 2012, Bear is soft-spoken and friendly. Wearing an orange sweater and a small gold cross necklace around her neck, she is the image of politeness. Bible verses on wooden plaques decorate the walls of her small one-room coffee house as she sits down to an interview on a recent afternoon.
She could be a nurse, a lawyer, a teacher. She speaks eloquently and articulately, so the first thing that she says when asked to tell the backstory behind her coffee shop is in juxtaposition with her calm countenance and demeanor.
“Fifteen years ago I was sentenced to prison and saw first-hand what incarceration and drug addiction does to your children,” Bear said. “And so I went into prison with only one thing in mind, and that was changing.”
Bear said her journey toward dealing drugs began before she reached high school. She became addicted to drugs when she was 12, and dropped out of school in eighth grade. By her mid-twenties, she was a single mother of three children without an education, job, or means to escape the vicious cycle of drug addiction.
“I wanted to take a shortcut in life,” Bear said. “My whole life had been drugs, so I thought I would sell drugs and get myself financially OK so I could … be a mom to my kids.”
Caught in the web of meth addiction that pervades Oklahoma, Bear was one of approximately 1.2 million Americans who use methamphetamines every year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Bear eventually lost custody of her children and was wanted in Arkansas and six Oklahoma counties for crimes that included burglary, possession of a controlled drug and possession of a controlled dangerous substance.
“I couldn’t even see my children at all because there was a bounty on me,” Bear said. “And the perfect place to find me would be pulling up into my children’s driveway, and I really didn’t want to be arrested in front of my children … so I kept running and running, putting my hope in meth.”
Eventually, Bear said, she knew the only way she was going to see her three children was if she changed her behavior and accepted a prison sentence. She called the district attorney in Sequoyah County and told him she’d turn herself in on one condition.
“Dec. 7, 2000, I spent the day with my children,” Bear said. “I had Christmas with them and I told them I was sorry for being the mom that I had been and that I knew I was going to prison … and that I would be back to get them and I was coming back different. That’s when I determined my life was going to change.”
The following day, Bear turned herself in. On Jan. 1, 2001, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Upon entry into the Mabel Basset Correctional Facility in McCloud, Bear obtained a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Blue Book and a copy of the Bible, which she said set her down the road to recovery.
However, the most transformative experience she had in prison, she said, was at a retreat sponsored by Kairos Prison Ministry International.
The retreat, a four day short-course in Christianity led by multi-denominational Christian volunteers, is named Kairos from the Greek word meaning “God’s special time.”
All inmates have the opportunity to apply to participate in the retreats, which take place twice a year, but not everyone is chosen. Kairos Ministries’ strategy is to target individuals who have the greatest potential to impact others, so both negative and positive leaders within the prison are admitted.
“It was amazing to walk into a room where there were about 40 volunteers who loved unconditionally,” Bear said. “They didn’t say ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Shame on you.’ They said, ‘Come on in. Let’s love you with the love of God and let the love of God impact your life.’”
Jean Key, a Stillwater retiree who has been doing prison ministry for more than 20 years, was one of the volunteers who met with Bear in prison.
“Jean was amazing because she’s this little bitty woman coming into a maximum security prison without any fear,” Bear said. “That was quite humorous.”
Key, who lives in Stillwater with her husband, a retired Oklahoma State University professor, goes to Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility three out of every four weekends to practice the mission of the Kairos program – to “listen, listen, love, love.”
“The one thing that really impacted me was the love and the kindness that came through Jean Key and the women who were serving with her,” Bear said. “It was something I had never experienced, and I thought, ‘whatever you have, I want.’”
Key said this is often the case with the inmates to whom she ministers. According to Key, inmates are often surprised that volunteers are willing to listen to them openly.
She said one inmate once told her, “you just listen to us, and we don’t know how to do it. We’ve never had anybody in our lives that would give us that sense of presence.”
“It’s amazing,” Key said. “We’ve seen some of the hardest, most violent (inmates) walk across the yard … changed. They’re changed and they’re advocates for the God who loves them.”
According to Key, she witnessed this change within Bear.
“You know when you meet people, you have a sense about them,” Key said. “There was just something about her that set her apart. (I knew) when she would have an experience (with God) it would be a lasting one. If she had not had all of her negative experience plus prison, she wouldn’t be able to help as many people as she does today.”
Bear was released from prison on parole after 19 months, after which Kairos volunteers helped her get in contact with mentors in Tulsa who support former inmates in transition through Stand in the Gap Ministries. According to their website, their mission is to provide a “prayer-based, small-group empowered movement that fills the gaps in the social service system, in the ministry of the local church, and in the lives of Oklahomans in need.”
According to Stand in the Gap, “only 3 percent of women who have completed the entire … program have returned to incarceration.”
Statewide, 13.3 percent of women who are released from prison return within three years for violating parole or relapsing into criminal behavior, according to the 2013 Oklahoma Department of Corrections annual report. Nationwide, about two-thirds of people released from prison will return to prison or jail within three years, according to the National Institute of Justice. Bear didn’t want to be a recidivism statistic so, upon her release, she dedicated herself to working, eventually regained custody of her children, and remarried. According to Bear, she knew immediately after she met Key that she wanted to be a Kairos volunteer when she left prison, which she accomplished three years after her release.
“I’ve been going back into prison now for 10 years,” Bear said. “And I am a Kairos lady.”
Inspired by the compassion her Kairos volunteers had shown to her, Bear said she felt obligated to help others who were in her situation because so many women had been generous with her during her rehabilitation.
When asked what she would want the public to understand about female incarceration if she could communicate one thing, Bear said, “second chances do make a difference in a life. People do change. They can. They can.”
After her release, she 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 four-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 amongst 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 more than 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.”