Friday, April 11, 2014

Most of us who had a brush with going to prison would choose to run as far away from it as possible and never look back.  When Brenda Spahn faced the prospect of a long jail term, she made a pact with God:  if she could avoid prison, she would spend the rest of her life doing his work.  The book Miss Brenda and the Loveladies tells the story of what happened when Miss Brenda decided to devote her life to helping women newly released from prison.

Before her brush with the wrong side of the law, Brenda Spahn seemed to have it all:  a flourishing business, wonderful children, a new successful husband, several expensive houses, and more clothes than she could ever possibly wear.  Having grown up in poverty, she had made a vow to be successful, and she had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.  When one of her business associates was arrested and facing jail time, she claimed that Brenda was falsifying returns in her tax preparation business.  The authorities didn't do much investigating (from Brenda's perspective), but just came in and started putting her entire family under a microscope.  She finally agreed to a plea bargain which allowed her to stay out of jail, but which also meant she had lost much of what she'd spent her life building up.

Still, she didn't lose her faith and she determined to keep her bargain with God.  She decided to start visiting jails to see what she had so narrowly escaped.  While initially terrified of the incarcerated women, once she started volunteering at the prison, she quickly realized that most of the women had been abused their entire lives (and that the abuse by authority figures was continuing in prison).  She was dismayed to see people get released, only to return quickly to prison.  After learning that the women were given no support or efforts at rehabilitation when they left prison, she realized she had found her calling: to establish a "whole-way house" (as opposed to the traditional "half-way house") where the women would receive support, training, counseling, and spiritual guidance.

As luck would have it, her real estate executive husband just happened to have a seven-bedroom, six bath house that wasn't selling.  Miss Brenda decided this would be the perfect place to do her work.  She had anticipated that the women sent to live there would be like the ones she was used to working with in work release programs -- non-violent, motivated women who would be receptive to help.  The prison authorities decided, however, that this foolish woman should be taught a lesson quickly, and sent her seven of the toughest cases they could find .  These seven women had been convicted of a variety of crimes and were hostile, angry and suspicious.

Brenda soon learned that most of the women had suffered from such severe abuse and neglect as children that they had no idea how to do the simplest tasks.  Making beds, setting the table and doing laundry were things they had never done before.  She also learned that years of institutionalization had left them fearful and rigid.  During their first outing, to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and toiletries, the women were dazed and intimidated by the wide variety of products available to them.

Brenda soon realized that each woman needed responsibility to be trusted with various tasks. At first the women felt that they were being brought in to be "maids" and work for free, or else that "Miss Brenda" was collecting some sort of government assistance for taking them in and getting rich off them.  Soon, however, they began to respond to being responsible for doing laundry, or cooking, or watching Brenda's young son.  Once someone trusted them, they became more confident and less resentful.

Things were going well until a newspaper article, meant to showcase the good work being done, instead alarmed and inflamed people who lived in the neighborhood.  These people reacted with fear and hostility to the idea of all these criminals and drug addicts living next door to them.  While this caused a minor blip in the work done by Miss Brenda, she soon found that it was instrumental in allowing her to expand her reach to help even more women.

Along the way, Brenda finds that, although the Loveladies (so named because this was Brenda's maiden name) learned a new way of life from her, she and her family also learned many valuable lessons from them as well.  I was really inspired by Brenda's spunk and tenacity.  Even when she was afraid, she never doubted that she had been called to do this work.  She endured the belittlement of authorities, anger from her family, fear from the neighbors and her own doubts to found the "largest faith-based transitional center for women and their children in the country."  Not bad for a woman whose biggest concern not long before was where to go for her next luxury vacation!

For more information about the center, visit their website: The Lovelady Center 

Disclaimer:  I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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