At one point, Shawntelle Fisher, founder of Soulfisher Ministries, did not know if she would ever make it to become a productive citizen. However, after a life of crime that led to seven trips to prison and even a near-death experience, Fisher mustered the courage to change her life. She is now a University of Missouri-St. Louis honors graduate that works to help other ex-offenders once they return to society.
“I wasn’t raised to break the law or to do the wrong things,” Fisher said. “I was a free-spirited young girl that wanted to do what she wanted to do, and that eventually led me to make some bad choices.”
Those bad choices, Fisher said, stemmed from “a love of money.”
Fisher’s criminal life entailed opening bogus bank accounts under made up identities and using drugs. Fisher was 17 years old when she first went to prison and the in and out visits occurred over 20 years.
“I would go to prison, and then get out and start back using drugs and wind back up in my criminal activity,” she explained. “It just became a vicious cycle in my life.”
“I was always a very bright young girl,” Fisher added. “I just used my knowledge for the wrong purposes.”
In 2005, Fisher was in a tragic car accident that crushed her spine and forced her into rehab. Even then, though, she was not done yet with her life of crime.
The final straw, she explained, was her last trip to prison.
“When I got out of rehab, I still went back to drugs,” she said. “When I got arrested in 2006, I said, ‘You know what, I’m sick of this and I’m sick of me,’ and I prayed that day and asked God, ‘If you can take my life and you can do something with it, you can have it.’”
Fisher turned her life around with the support of pastors and ministries she became acquainted with while in prison. With the intent to enroll in school after serving her last prison term, she went out on a limb and contacted an advisor at St. Louis Community College. She was shocked, she said, that the advisor accepted the call from prison and was eager to help her.
“I let him know what I wanted to do when I got out, and he told me to contact him,” she explained. “He said, ‘I’m not really concerned about where you’ve been, I’m concerned about where you are going.’”
Once out of prison, support began to pour in from several resources, including support from family, friends, professors and even local media.
Fisher would go on to finish her associate’s degree in one year at St. Louis Community College. From there, she received a full scholarship from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and graduated this May with honors. Her next step, she said, will be to attend graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis.
Fisher’s organization, Soulfisher Ministries, works to help prisoners and ex-offenders receive an education beyond a high school diploma or GED, and then help them get jobs once they re-enter society.
“Having a felony conviction is the number one challenge for ex-offenders when they come home, which is why our program is to promote higher education for ex-offenders,” Fisher said. “The number one stipulation of probation and parole is a job, but many ex-offenders cannot get jobs because of their records.”
Soulfisher Ministries also provides tutoring to children from low-income families and children whose parents are incarcerated. In fact, the ministry was essential in providing assistance during the unrest last August in Ferguson by serving hot meals to children during school closures.
Today, Fisher continues to rely on her faith, support system, family and friends to continue her mission. She also spends time mending the lost years with her daughter, who lived with her father while Fisher was incarcerated, and now resides in Texas with her family.
“The person that I hurt the most by [my lifestyle] was my daughter,” Fisher said. “Just because you change, the hurt that you put upon other people is still there.”
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.