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Teresa Parson to give commencement address as inmates complete entrepreneurship program

10 female offenders will graduate from entrepreneurial training pilot program on Wednesday

A women’s prison in eastern Missouri will graduate the inaugural class of an entrepreneurship program this week, and Missouri’s first lady will be on hand to give the commencement address.

On Wednesday, 10 inmates at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri, will graduate from the ASPIRE MO program. Teresa Parson is scheduled to give the commencement address.

“I am looking forward to speaking to the inaugural graduating class of ASPIRE MO. Both the Governor and I firmly believe in strengthening Missouri’s workforce,” Parson said in a statement to The Missouri Times. “In less than six months since it was founded, ASPIRE MO has successfully begun preparing women for the workplace who have been overlooked in the past. It is also providing the resources necessary for these women to start or grow their own businesses.”

“I want to convey to these graduates that there is nothing you can do about the past, and you never know about tomorrow, so you must make the best of today. I want to wish each of these ladies the best as they start a new chapter in their lives,” she said.

The entrepreneurial training initiative for incarcerated women is a pilot program aimed at reducing the recidivism rate in the Show-Me State.

“I want to convey to these graduates that there is nothing you can do about the past, and you never know about tomorrow, so you must make the best of today.”

While incarcerated, student Lorie Barnes spent six years training dogs in the C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs program to prepare them to serve people with disabilities  — skills she hopes to turn into a business. She said she’s grateful not only for the professional tools the class has given her but also for the compassionate guidance the instructors have shown.

“They have gone out of their way to build us up and make us see our worth,” Barnes said about the guest speakers, as well as Missouri Women’s Council Executive Director Kellie Ann Coats and Missouri Women’s Business Center Director Jessie Yankee. “After you’re shunned from society for so long, you have that grief, that loss. They have worked so hard to make us feel like we’re citizens again and we can get out there and we can do this.”

ASPIRE MO launched on Dec. 20, 2018, with an initial class of 10 participants — 62 inmates applied to be part of the pilot program. The 20-week program was rooted in the LaunchU curriculum, a nationally recognized intensive business training course developed at Southeast Missouri State University.

Participants gathered for three hours each week to “learn what makes them tick and then figure out how to turn their strengths, skills, and passions into careers.” Students completed assignments designed to help them learn not only how to start a business but also how to maintain a job.

Missouri women who are business owners and industry experts gave guest lectures at the prison on topics such as business etiquette, résumé building, cost projections, and marketing strategies. A retired banker, Parson led a financial literacy session for the group in February.

For each student, the coursework culminated in a finished business plan and a pitch delivered prior to graduation.

The Department of Economic Development’s Missouri Women’s Council, the Missouri Department of Corrections, and the Missouri Women’s Business Center collaborated together on the program.

In 2017, Missouri had the country’s fastest-growing population of incarcerated women, more than 90 percent of whom were entering prison for technical probation or parole violations or substance-use treatment — not for new crimes.