Chicago Woman Starts Life Anew Post-Prison
ambi: church, testimonial and singing
Kimberly Head is playing the keyboard at Mount of Transformation, a storefront church on North Western Ave.
A former life of hard drugs and the penitentiary belie her appearance; she's a youthful-looking 53. She's been out of Illinois prison since August.
While serving time, Head directed a choir, learned to bake wedding cakes and got her food handling license. Head says inmates reverently referred to her as "The church lady."
ambi: I had no family
As she declares in her church testimonial, Head was in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time. According to court documents, she testified against the people who actually committed the murder of a woman tied to the drug trade.
Head's sentence for first-degree murder was reduced to 25 years and she served half of that time.
She left prison eager, drug free, excited. But she was also jobless, scared and had nothing to call her own except a few photographs.
Head returned to Chicago without friends or family. She says her only son isn't that dependable. Sometimes she's as impatient as a child on a long car trip because she really, really wants to get her life back on a meaningful path.
HEAD: Five years from now I hope to be doing my music, own my own business hopefully.
Right now she's writing gospel songs.
When Head got out of prison, she hooked up with Tanya DePeiza. The social worker started Women In Progress, a new group that works with formerly incarcerated women. Head found out about the group from another female ex-offender.
HEAD: Sometimes I would cry and say, 'Tanya, I'm tired. I don't know how I'm going to make it. I'm not young like I used to be.' She'd say you're doing just fine.
DEPEIZA: In terms of Kim, I have very great expectations and aspirations for her as I do for all of the girls.
DePeiza helped Head with bus cards as she searched for a job.
HEAD: But it's not been easy. I've had doors slammed in my face. I was calling in to my parole officer and she says Offender Kimberly. I said I'm not an offender. I'm on the street. Offenders are in prison. I said, ‘When you gonna let me live that down?' I paid my debt to society. My name is Kimberly Head.
Finding work as an ex-convict in this precarious economy is insanely tough. On top of that, Head found most of the employment outreach catered to men.
HEAD: Well, they're like forklift or sending you to Nebraska or Oklahoma to work in factories that's strictly men work, lifting pounds. You can't do that, your whole womb fall out.
Before she went to prison, Head worked as a manager of a West Side soul food restaurant. So she started out looking for work in the food industry.
HEAD: I went to Old Country Buffet, Red Lobster, Armak…
Her applications were rejected because places said they weren't hiring.
HEAD: They prefer that the person be out five years before they hire them. Five years? I'm going to sleep up under the Dan Ryan for five years? Or lower Wacker Drive?
Head turned to the Safer Foundation, an organization that helps ex-offenders find work. They connected her with Michelle McCaa, a business owner who takes chances on the formerly incarcerated at her rib joint.
McCAA: I like to work with people who need to work. There's a different energy with people who have to work versus people who just want something to do. And I just felt that from Ms. Head.
Head got the job. She now makes slaw, cleans ribs, washes dishes, answers phones, and takes orders for McCaa's takeout restaurant.
HEAD: I'm not saying it's not hard for men but it's a little bit harder for us. Because number one society looks at us like we're supposed to be home with the kids so I kind of disrespect that you got yourself in that predicament.
Women In Progress's Tanya DePeiza still helps Head with the practical things: toiletries, clothes and lending an ear over a meal.
DEPEIZA: When you have programs or services that are just for women, that allows for other opportunities for other things to be addressed like self esteem it allows for other things to be addressed like self respect.
It took Head eight months after getting out of prison to arrive at this moment. She is moving into her South Shore apartment – her first independent home since getting out of prison.
While unpacking groceries, Head says she's still getting her bearings now that she's in what prisoners call the "outside world."
Head still gets frustrated with the post-prison process. She wants more money to buy a car, take the time off of work to purchase a state ID. Most of her spending is just on the necessities. ambi of what she's bought But she's taking heart from a bit of good news that just arrived.
Her boss just promoted her to manager.