North Philadelphia resident Debra Wilson has donned various forms of attire to signify where she was in life. Her first was the military camouflage of a drill sergeant. Her next was the uniform of a prison inmate.
On Wednesday, Wilson joined 11 other women in royal blue caps and gowns for the fourth annual Women Working for a Change graduation ceremony.
“It was overwhelming,” Wilson said, describing Wednesday’s ceremony at the School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. “It was the first time I’ve ever done something to that degree.”
Woman Working for a Change (WW4C) is a 10-week program by the organization Mothers in Charge. Started in 2014 with a grant from the Philadelphia Prison System, WW4C helps recently released women through job readiness and life skills classes.
At 53, Wilson said she had struggled with years of low self-esteem due to past abuse. She dreamed of retiring from the military, but her past continued to haunt her. After her release from the military, she struggled to keep a steady job.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Wilson said in an interview Friday.
She eventually ended up in prison, where she served four years. Afterwards, Wilson ran into a former inmate who graduated from the WW4C program. The woman had been in prison for 18 years, but Wilson could see how the program had changed her.
“The way she carried herself, she was just positive she knew what she was going to do,” Wilson said. “I wanted to figure out what it was all about.”
Wilson filled out an application for the program, went through the interview process and waited. When she finally got the call, Wilson said, she was elated.
“They asked me ‘What do you expect to get from this program?” Wilson said. “I responded, ‘Everything you have to offer.’”
She joined 11 other women for the 10 week program. Her class met from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday. As part of the program, Wilson took classes in motivation, self-affirmation and changes in thinking. The mentors also worked with Wilson to help her face childhood struggles. For Wilson, that process was like peeling back the layers.
“The tools I was given will be with me for the rest of my life,” she said.
Toni Ebright, 47, from Germantown, graduated from WW4C last year. Before joining the program, Ebright’s addiction to pain medication led to her being in and out of prison for 10 years. She suffered multiple drug overdoses and periods of being clean. But Ebright said she never worked through why she turned to drugs in the first place.
“They saw something in me that I couldn’t see,” Ebright said. “They worked with me and saved me.”
When she first walked through the doors of the WW4C program, Ebright said, she struggled to look people in the eye. Now she has become a leader. Ebright works with Mothers in Charge as a program coordinator. She will celebrate two years sober next week.
“This is my dream job, working with women who have gone through the same thing as me,” Ebright said.
Ebright shared her story at last week’s graduation ceremony, describing herself as a “drug addict imprisoned in my own mind.” She is now working on getting a degree from Harcum College. Ebright said she always looks to help women on their own journey.
“We feel pain before we feel relief. But it’s a good kind of pain. A pain that will bring you out of the darkness,” Ebright said.
After graduation Wilson said she plans to stay in Philadelphia and be a part of Mothers in Charge. Led by Dorothy Johnson-Speight, the organization helps support families who have lost loved ones to violence and sponsors violence prevention programs. More information about Mothers in Charge is available online at mothersincharge.org.