Shazonia Horton was released from prison a month ago and the day after her release she had a job waiting for her at the Dragonfly Thrift Boutique in Little Havana.
After serving four years in prison, one of her biggest concerns was how she’d be able to take care of herself when she’s out. The Florida prison system gives ex-offenders $50 and a one-way bus pass to start their new lives on the outside.
“It’s the anxiety that comes with it,” she said. “I don’t want to have to turn to the streets.”
While in prison, Horton connected with the Ladies Empowerment Action Program (LEAP), a Miami-based nonprofit that provides life skills and business classes to women in prison and helps them transition back into the community when they’re released.
To better help with that transition, LEAP recently opened Dragonfly Thrift. The small boutique carries gently used women’s clothing, fashionable baubles and an assortment of books and furniture. And the store bridges one of the biggest gaps for women leaving the prison system: employment.
On a recent afternoon, Horton showed a customer a basket of handmade soaps for sale.
“No colors, no perfumes,” and she added the soaps were handcrafted by an ex-offender who graduated from the LEAP program.
So far, LEAP has hired two women to work at Dragonfly and a third is expected to join them in October when she’s released.
LEAP also provides the women with housing in a home they rent nearby, eliminating the transportation barriers for the women to get to work.
Mahlia Lindquist, executive director of LEAP, said this model is a small version of what she hopes can eventually be scaled in different communities to hire the thousands of women that are released from prison every day. She calls the thrift store “a soft landing.”
“They want to succeed. They're willing to work and they just need a little bit of support and acceptance from the community,” said Lindquist.
For example, in the first few weeks after their release, many of the women have to make mandatory visits to parole officers, substance abuse meetings and medical appointments. There’s also the delicate act of reconnecting with their children and family members.
Even if the women were able to land a regular job somewhere, few employers are willing to give them the time off or flexible schedules to meet these needs, which can lead to losing that job and returning to the cycle of unemployment.
Dragonfly Thrift accommodates time off for court appearances, probation check-ins or to visit with family. The store also gives the women paid time to apprentice in a field that they’re interested in pursuing.
Before prison, Horton worked in the restaurant industry as a prep cook and she loved baking. She recently took time off to shadow a caterer in Miami Gardens. Horton is working on a business plan for her own private chef company that creates intimate dining experiences.
“My clients do not have to do anything,” she said. “I bring the tablecloth, centerpiece, I cook the food, I serve the food, I clean up and I leave.”
The thrift store isn’t meant to be a permanent job. It’s a place to go after prison to get stable, make some money, build a resume and references and then hopefully get a job somewhere else to make room for another woman who is about to be released.
Rebecca Macklemore works the register at Dragonfly. As she rang up a beaded necklace for a regular customer, she told her about the different discounts.
“Shoes are on sale Mondays. Fifteen percent off,” said Macklemore, who got out of prison five months ago. She got addicted to pain pills after her husband took a hard fall at work and was prescribed the medicine. Things spiraled from there.
“I lost my children, I lost my self-worth, I lost my humanity," she said.
Macklemore said right now she’s rebuilding herself emotionally and financially. Every day after work she goes to a substance abuse meeting.
“I'm truly blessed to get this program because I didn't have anything to go back to except for the same life I lived before,” she said. “Now I'm learning to step out of the comfort zone because change only happens when you step out that comfort zone.”
Since starting at Dragonfly she was able to buy an older model Ford for $800 and she uses her skills as a trained mechanic to keep it on the road and in good condition. Macklemore needs the car for her side-hustle that she hopes to turn into a sustainable business.
In prison, she was one of several inmates who helped train rescue dogs and service dogs for wounded veterans. She plans to use what she learned to start her own dog training business, “All Paws Allowed.”
One of her co-workers at the thrift store has a dog that she plans to use to try drum up some business at local parks.
“I'm going to use her dog to go to the dog park and train so maybe people will ask me what I’m doing and I'll give [them] my business card,” said Macklemore.
She said the customer service skills she’s learning and running the cash register at the thrift store will also come in handy for her small business too.
When the thrift store is slow, Macklemore re-designs the layout and dresses up the mannequins to keep it looking fresh and soon, she’ll help lead the orientation for the new workers when they’re released from prison.
“They can see if I can do it, they can do it too,” said Macklemore.