Nonprofit leader works for 'left behind' families of prisoners - Albuquerque Journal

Nonprofit leader works for ‘left behind’ families of prisoners

Ann Edenfield Sweet — founder/executive director of wings for life international. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

It was a “chaotic” summer morning in 1986 when Ann Edenfield got the news that would devastate her life for years.

The FBI, she was told, had just arrested her husband, a former commercial airline pilot, at the couple’s Albuquerque real estate office on a charge of conspiracy to import drugs.

At the time, she was on maternity leave with a newborn, while also taking care of their three other young sons.

“Overnight, I became a leper,” says Edenfield Sweet, who has since gotten remarried and taken on her second husband’s name. “None of the neighbors would come over. The boys couldn’t play with anybody. You can’t imagine the stigma.”

Also, not one person from the church she had attended for more than a decade contacted her, and she was stripped of her duties as a Cub Scout leader.

Edenfield Sweet’s humiliation and forced isolation led her to start what is now called Wings For LIFE International, a nonprofit for families of prisoners that provides life skills, training, support and education. “Everybody helps with the prisoner, with the addicted one, with the problem child,” she says. “Who works for the families of the people left behind?”

Now, the wide-ranging organization is preparing to add job training to its long list of offerings through a new program called Wings WORKS. A job skills and manufacturing hub, it will provide four months of hands-on training, plus lessons on financing, marketing and business skills.

The former flight attendant who once owned a second home in Jamaica has found a deep way to connect with families who have experienced different lives and may look nothing like her.

“The first thing I say to them is ‘Yeah, my first husband went to prison, and that’s why I started this program,'” she says. “Because they think, ‘Who is this white woman, what does she know? She doesn’t dress like us.’

“So I break that barrier, and then they know, ‘Oh, I can open up.'”

Tell me more about Wings WORKS.

“We’re looking for a building that will be Wings headquarters and will house Wings WORKS. (A woman) who gave us her 37-year-old ceramics business, including her client list — we will teach people how to do that and fill orders. We’ve got paint, canvas, sewing machines, yarn, fabric. So people can just come in and utilize this stuff and see if they can start to make a living, and they can put it on our website. The guy who rebuilds bikes for us, he is going to teach people how to do that. They’re going to learn how to budget money. They’re going to set up their own checking account.”

Is there a particular person or family you have helped that you’re proud of?

“Our board president, Don Shapiro, knew an 18-year-old, William, who was getting out of the juvenile justice system. As Don got to know him, William said he had a father who he thought was in prison in Santa Rosa. His dad was arrested when he was very young, and he doesn’t really remember him and has never heard from him. He’s questioning, does his father ever think of him, remember him, anything. We were doing a family (prison) day in Santa Rosa, so I took William with me. On the way, he literally was shaking and hyperventilating. I used my flight attendant training and gave him my lunch bag (to breathe into.) So the inmates started to come in, and I had families sitting in the front row and then some inmates came into the second row. We always get to know each other first, so I said to William, ‘Turn around to the people right behind you and introduce yourself.’ And here was this man that was all tattooed, very heavy. This man, this inmate, looked at William and said. ‘You have the eyes of my son, William.’ They hugged over the chairs. Well, it was the most beautiful thing to see. Here’s this 40- year-old dad, tattooed, all the gang stuff. So now they’re doing Cheerio necklaces and making bookmarks together. At the end of the day, they were just hugging and laughing.”

Do you ever get down about the things you see?

“I always say I’m the eternal optimist. I always see that if something didn’t turn out this time, well OK, what can you do next time? Every failure is one more chance to show what didn’t work.”

Was there an incident in particular that inspired you to start Wings?

“People don’t understand the shame. For me, I had won all kinds of awards, been well-respected at one point, but now I’m scum of the earth. I tried to fudge it by telling people, ‘My husband and I are separated.’ Well we were separated. I wasn’t lying. They’d say, ‘Well, what does he do?’ I’d say, ‘He works for the government.’ I wasn’t lying. But I didn’t say, ‘He works for 11 cents an hour for the federal government — as a prisoner.’ I was just uniquely qualified to teach other people how are you going to deal with this?”

What do you do in your free time?

“I have grandchildren. And I love to lead people on mission trips. All the years of flying, you know you stay in a hotel and you get to know people at the front desk, but not the real people of life.”

Where have you gone on your trips?

“I’ve made 10 trips all across Russia. I have dear, dear, dear Russian friends who I know would not be going along with anything that’s going on in Russia right now. I have been to prisons all across Russia, I’ve been to prisons all across India, I have been to every prison in Kenya. I brought the Kenyans into prisons. Families could visit from the outside, but others — pastors, other leaders — could not go in until we got there. We modeled how that could happen, and now Kenyans can go into their prisons. I went to Liberia and was active there.”

Do you have any regrets?

“When I was in a sorority, the new pledges would ask all these questions. Way back then, I said, ‘On my death bed, I want to say I would relive every day of my life.’ And I can honestly say I have lived every day of my life, and I would relive even the bad days. I tell everybody I know, ‘I’m the richest person I know, I just don’t have money.’ Really, I am. Because of the relationships, the people. How would I get to know the people that are coming in with the school supplies? How would I get to know the people that donate to us, the people who volunteer with us, the families I get to touch and help and encourage and give hope? What I do is the most joyous thing in the world, because I get to give hope to people and let them know there is a different way.”

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