My newest title, “Joe’s understudy”…
Today we did something that we have never done before. We went back into Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) to evaluate with the moms about how the Get On The Bus day was for them. This was a day that was filled with good insight and emotion and I am coming away from it feeling a little heavy hearted.
When I walked into the room this morning, I saw a very familiar face. Zenobia, whose daughter Devine rode Joe’s bus last year, was one of the first people to fill the room. I came up to her and introduced myself as Joe’s wife. She was so happy that I knew Joe. She went on and on about how great he is and how much of a crush Devine has on him. She asked me how he was doing, how the movie was coming and if he was at the institution today? I disappointed her by saying that Joe couldn’t come, but I assured her that I was the next best thing. Sharing a laugh, we sat down together and she immediately opened up about her past.
The most interesting thing that I took away from our conversation was that Zenobia is the product of a lifetime of failed systems. The ironic thing was that these very systems were intended to help, but like many incarcerated women, she fell through the cracks.
Zenobia was born in Buffalo NY and abadoned as a baby. She was picked up by the state and placed into foster care. Before the age of 3, she was shuffled from different homes and orphanages, never staying more than a couple of weeks at any place. At age 3, she was adopted to a couple who also had their own biological child, a couple years older than she. Growing up, Zenobia always felt like her parents loved this child more than her. They used to make remarks to her saying, “If only, you were more like your sister, we would love you more.” As she got older, she suspected that her parents may have decided to adopt her to receive state money to better the life of their eldest child.
The resentment grew in Zenobia and at an early age, she was falsely diagnosed by her social workers with conduct disorder. (As an adult, her diagnosis was revised to ADHD.) Even though academically, she was bright, she was placed into a special needs program based on her diagnosis. She felt very demoralized and unmotivated and started to try less and less. Battling with depression, she turned to drugs and alcohol as her answer. At age 14, she became a run away and was thrown into the juvenile system. She later came out and went to the court system and was emancipated at age 16 and became a ward of the state.
She hopped a bus ticket to California trying to chase a better life, but she continued to be an addict and an alcoholic. She met a man who she thought she was in love with, whose influence later landed her in prison. As she spoke about her life, she sat there sobbing. She said, “If only anyone in my life could have listened half as much as you are listening to me, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up here.”
Zenobia does accept full responsibility for her actions and doesn’t deny that she deserves the time that she was sentenced. She has also had a positive impact on the women on the inside and wants to continue to do something positive when she gets out next year. She is committed to starting her own nonprofit to help young kids escape from street life and to give them the love that she never received.
I was so grateful for Zenobia’s sharing today and her encouragement to take the negative and make it positive. In life, we all make mistakes; however, I do not believe that we are defined by these mistakes, rather we are defined by what we do to turn it around.