Journeys From Prison to Productivity

For me, beautiful fall Saturday mornings are meant for open air markets, bike rides and hikes. For Abed Commey, 55, they mean teaching computer skills to female ex-offenders at Friends of Guest House. FOGH is a nonprofit that helps women transition from incarceration back into the community by giving them temporary housing, vocational training, counseling and long-term support.

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computer training
Abed Commey teaches Shelby Edmond how to download a YouTube video.

This particular Saturday, I decide to see things Commey's way. We join an eclectic gathering of nine former soccer moms, professionals and high school dropouts, gathered anxiously in the basement of the large FOGH house in suburban Alexandria, Va. Through a partnership with Computer CORE, a job-training nonprofit funded by several community members, FOGH offers a six-week program that teaches Microsoft Office skills to current and former residents of the facility.

Commey and I hand the women laptop computers from a storage cabinet. They eagerly download slides, music, graphics and pictures as they build electronic stories of their lives. The goal is to learn both computer skills and self-esteem.

As Commey and I wander among the women to offer technical assistance, a woman named Shelby asks for help with embedding a YouTube link. Like most of the residents, Shelby served prison time for addiction-related offenses. She is also writing There’s Still Tomorrow, her autobiography of survival, optimism and hope that chronicles abuse by her mother, cocaine addiction and recovery, cancer, three prison terms and reuniting with her two toddlers after an eight-month kidnapping nightmare.

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“No matter what you go through, there’s still tomorrow,” she tells me.

Commey walks Shelby through the steps to embed a link and smiles when she gave a victory whoop. Success!

A middle school graduate in his native Ghana, Commey yearned for the help that he now volunteers to the FOGH clients. He worked his way through school and recently began a PhD program in information technology. Giving these women a second chance fulfills him.

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“All of them have something that society needs,” he says.

The women agree. “Even though I’m a felon, someone will give me a chance,” says Lekisha, a former tech professional. “I believe one day I will have my ideal career.”

And I believe she will.

Photo: Jane Hess Collins

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