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Miss Brenda and the Loveladies: A Heartwarming True Story of Grace, God, and GumptionMiss Brenda and the Loveladies: A Heartwarming True Story of Grace, God, and Gumption
Brenda Spahn, Irene Zutell
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Brenda Spahn was a businesswoman who wouldn't take no for an answer when she discovered that God wouldn't either. When she invited seven hardened parolees into her Southen mansion, she expected to house them, not love them. But her reluctant decision to serve women prisoners developed into a career, a calling, and a ministry that had helped thousands of women leave prison for good.

In the tradition of The Blind Side, this remarkable true story shows the power of living out your calling, the beauty of God's mercy, and why loving others always changes us first.


     

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Q: Brenda, you had a brush with the law, and that experience led you to make a promise to God. In those dark moments, what did you promise you would do?

A: I did the same thing most of us do when we find ourselves in situations much larger than we are. I prayed. In my case, I actually found myself angry with God. I kept explaining to Him that I had been a “good girl” and had done many good things for Him. Finally, after many intimate moments my promise was so simple. I promised to serve Him and to seek His will in Brenda’s life. In my heart I knew I had been running from Him for many years doing all sorts of “godly things” I felt should have been enough. My promise was to do His will to the best of my ability.

Q: Tell us about the first time you volunteered at a women’s prison in Birmingham, Alabama. How did that experience open your eyes to your vision of starting a “whole-way house” for women being released from prison?

A: Currently, there are classes devoted to teaching and explaining the ins and outs of prison life, but then there were none. I simply walked in. I had never been to a place like that, and within minutes I was a changed person. There is simply no way to explain what I felt. Sadness, hopelessness, abandonment, shame, and desperation were just a few of the emotions running rampant through the prison that night.

Q: Some of these seven women had been in and out of prison most of their lives. What were you most surprised about the adjustments they had to make to life outside the prison walls? What sort of life skills did you teach them?

A: In the beginning, I was shocked that at first the women wanted me to tell them every move to make. I’d felt I would have a real problem with them needing me to keep them inside the lines because freedom would drive them to do things that might not be good for them. On the contrary, they were so afraid, it was difficult to get them to do the exciting things I wanted them to do! I pushed them to try new things. I’d take them grocery shopping and simple things like that.  Drugs had stolen simple life skills that we take for granted. All domestic skills had to be taught and real hygiene. Social skills were really weak. Going out in public in crowds was terrible.

Q: Your “whole-way house” eventually evolved into The Lovelady Center, the largest and most successful nonprofit transitional center for women in the country. Tell us about the center and the work you do to help women find hope and success.

A: The center is the same as the house, only about 20 times bigger and so much more organized. We set the center up in small groups, so that is not a problem, which means the large center still works in essentially the same way. Every woman who enters our door knows that hope waits for her and we will do everything to help her achieve success. Many women cry when we give them keys to their room. Intake is a sacred process for many of the new residents. We want them to embrace a new beginning. Most people talk about the “feeling” they get as they enter the door. Even our volunteers and outside teachers are amazed at how happy the residents are here and the hope that everyone seems to have.

Q: The national recidivism rate (those who are re-arrested within 3 years of leaving prison) is 68%, but the rate is only 10% for those who graduate from The Lovelady Center. Why is your number so much lower? What are you doing differently to achieve these results?

A: Not everyone who enters our doors graduates. Many of the women who arrive are sent out. There are several reasons for that. 1) They are just not ready to change, 2) They refuse to follow rules 3), They may follow most rules and in a weak moment make a really bad decision and have to suffer the consequences for their actions. However, many of those women come back to us, and many do make it the second or even the third time. We just keep loving and always being consistent in our message, and most will sooner or later take hold of it. Love, hope, and the Gospel is what we offer. It is a message 2000 years old, yet it’s brand new every time we share it.

Q: Several of the original seven women now work at The Lovelady Center, nearly 10 years later. Can you tell us about your relationship with Shay and Tiffany in particular?

A: Really, all of the early women have left the nest except Shay and Tiffany. I see the others all from time to time. I see Shay, Tiffany, Stephanie, and Annette most every day. If I do not see them, you may rest assured they call me. We do not ever mention to them they are not my actual kids. Not too long ago, after a surgery I had, Tiffany was at the house and informed me that she had decided when I got really old she was going to be the child who took “care of me.” Shay calls me with all of her aches and pains, as does Stephanie, who never runs out of dramas. They are the three women who have taught me the most love and hope of any of the women.


 

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