Junior League's $75,000 grant will help nonprofit rebuild lives

FORT WORTH -- Last year, Sandra Stanley and her small nonprofit, Opening Doors for Women in Need, received a $40,000 grant and volunteer support from the Junior League of Fort Worth.

Stanley figured there was no way she would qualify for such largess again.

By the time this year's Junior League grant deadline rolled around, she hadn't even applied.

What she didn't know was how much her mission -- and the irrepressible Stanley herself -- had impressed the Junior Leaguers. For the last nine years, in the Fort Worth Como neighborhood, where Stanley lives, ODWIN has helped 500 women make the transition from prison to the free world.

"We have fallen in love with Sandra Stanley," said Michelle Marlow, the Junior League's incoming president.

So last summer, league members encouraged Stanley to apply again.

"I didn't even know I could," Stanley said.

She rushed to complete an application for $10,000.

That led to Tuesday evening at the Junior League headquarters.

Stanley, one of her residents and staff members showed up to meet new board members and answer a few questions. Or so they thought.

"A little birdie told us you wanted to build a second transitional home," Junior League member Chesleigh Lloyd said. "So we wanted to give you $75,000 ..."

Lloyd couldn't finish because Stanley shrieked, and looked to be on the verge of fainting. When she had recovered a bit, Lloyd continued.

"... $75,000 to build a second transitional home," Lloyd said. "We've already met with the builders."

"Oh, my God, thank you!" Stanley said, dabbing her eyes. Most of the others in the room did the same.

"All of you are my friends now. This is just answered prayer. Answered prayers. You all, this is really big."

The assembled Junior Leaguers applauded.

"I keep saying they are going to make a movie about Sandra," Lloyd said.

And well they might.

A new direction

Stanley was a respiratory therapist who, years ago, felt she wasn't doing enough to serve God's children. She started a prison ministry.

"When I started going into the prison, I noticed the girls were telling me that when they come out, they don't have good places to go," Stanley said.

"So I said, 'You know what? I want to do transitional living.' I didn't know what I was doing."

But she learned, building a modest place where women just released from prison live with others in the same situation. They stay for a year in a familylike setting, receiving services that include job counseling, drug counseling and spiritual support.

"It changed my entire life," said Kristy Culver, a four-month resident who accompanied Stanley on Tuesday.

"If I hadn't come to this program I would be back at home and back on drugs. I've gone from having no dreams at all to going back to school."

Yet the first several times Stanley applied for Junior League help, she was turned down. The volunteer and philanthropic organization, now in its 83rd year, is inundated with requests annually, so ODWIN was scarcely the only group not to make the cut.

Stanley kept trying, and the Junior League was eventually won over by her passion and perseverance.

That led to a check last year for $40,000, which went toward refurbishing a building used by the organization. Maybe just as importantly, it led to deepening relationships among Stanley, her residents and Junior League volunteers.

"The girls were going in and teaching checkbook skills, faith skills, down to even going in and fixing hair and helping them outfit for job interviews," said Marlow, the new Junior League president.

"They helped them practice for interviews, how to be good mothers again so that they can get their children back, right down to painting fingernails and toenails.

"We have made friends with these women who have been in prison," Marlow said. "For us to have that experience, make those friends ... it was just a whole different world for some of our members and I think it's been such a blessing."

When she entered Junior League headquarters Tuesday, Stanley had no idea how that blessing was about to be repaid.

"I said to Kristy, 'I don't know what we are doing here.'"

There was a cake.

"We knew we wanted to do something big, to make a community impact," Lloyd told Stanley. "We were all very impressed by the work that is being done in the Como community and how you are making a difference one by one."

Stanley began to get an inkling that something was up.

"Come up here, and I'll tell you what we're doing to do for you," Lloyd said.

She did.

"What?! What?! What?!" Stanley shrieked.

$75,000 for a new home, that's what, and a story fit for the movies.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan