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Leap Looks to Expand Its Business Mentor Program

Written by: Gemma Betancourt, Ladies Empowerment and Action Program
Edited by: J. Gigi Soliman, City of Miami Attorney’s Office

Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP) is a non-profit agency dedicated to providing business programs and education to female inmates around the State of Florida. Entrepreneurship is the primary focus of the program. LEAP is the first of its kind and the only entrepreneurship training dedicated to preparing incarcerated women to re-enter society in Florida. LEAP strives to provide female inmates with the necessary skills and training to gain employment upon their release from prison as well as providing the knowledge and education necessary to create a small business.

LEAP is driven by the passion of three women who came together as a result of working with Kairos Prison Ministry retreats—Gemma Betancourt, Patricia Glover, and Norel Ruiz. Seeing that the needs of female inmates were not being addressed within the correctional system forced them to take action. The LEAP founders determined that their commitment to effect change in the lives of these women required action beyond a short term program. Unique skills were needed to address the root cause of individual needs and deficiencies. Thus, the idea of a re-entry program was born, and in May 2009, LEAP was incorporated.

LEAP aims to reduce recidivism among released female inmates in the South Florida area, which in turn will reduce the number of repeat offenders and ultimately strengthen the community. The driving theory behind LEAP is that given the proper education and opportunities, the female inmates will use their knowledge and resources to sustain themselves after release by gaining employment or creating their own economic opportunities. LEAP, in its six year history, has proven this theory correct. The current recidivism rate (percentage of offenders returning to prison within three years) in the state of Florida is at an alarming 26.3% vs LEAP’s graduates’ recidivism rate which is 4.4%.

Two programs are presented per year. The program is presented in a two-phase format. Phase I extends over a five-month period. The program emphasizes entrepreneurship and employability training. LEAP has partnered with Barry University, which provides professors to educate program participants (LEAPers) on how to start a small business. In conjunction with Mercantile Bank, Barry provides classes to the female inmates. Lessons include marketing strategies, preparing a business plan, daily business management, and financing a business. The Employability portion of the program provides thorough and interactive job search preparation including résumé preparation, job search skills and tips, case studies and role playing.

Phase II of the program focuses on assessing and identifying the needs and resources needed post release. LEAP employs a case manager to work with the participants on re-entry planning and life skills. Through a partnership with Miami Dade College, LEAPers have the opportunity to continue building and implementing the entrepreneurship and employability skills learned in Phase I. By completing the multi-disciplinary entrepreneurship curriculum, participants develop financial literacy along with the interpersonal skills and knowledge needed to create a micro-enterprise post release, or enter traditional employment. Post-release, the case manager follows up with the LEAPers once a week and leads participants’ reunions. LEAP provides support in housing, building relationships, financial management, and life skills.

LEAP has established a Business Mentor Program. LEAP encourages the Women’s Chamber of Commerce to participate in the Business Mentor Program. This program connects LEAPers with experienced and qualified mentors in the business sector. Given that LEAPers do not have access to internet in prison, mentors assist LEAPers with obtaining information for their business plans. Additionally, professional one-on-one relationships are vital in assisting LEAPers with their transition into the community. Once released, the mentors can continue assisting their protégés in improving their business plans and identifying possible employment opportunities. Through the Center for Social Change, LEAP was able to employ one of its LEAP program graduates to act as Development Manager/Job Placement/Client Advocate for the graduates entering the community.

To get involved in LEAP Business Mentor Program, please contact the Mentor Coordinator, Yvette , at yvette@leapforladies.org.

To learn more about LEAP, visit: www.leapforladies.org