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Photo of three African American women
By Christen McCurdy | The Skanner News
Published: 07 March 2019

It took 10 years for Shannon Olive to start WomenFirst Transition & Referral Center, the nonprofit that celebrates its second anniversary this month.

She had the idea in 2007 to create a program to help support women who need help rebuilding their lives, but didn’t get the organization off the ground until March 2017. In the meantime, Olive volunteered at Oregon Action, became the director of legislative affairs for the Associated Students of Portland Community College, and worked at the Urban League, Human Solutions and Janus Youth Programs. She also got involved in advocating for local campaign finance reform and for extended times on bus fares.

When she graduated from college in 2015, Olive sought a job relating to corrections or re-entry, and ended up becoming a residential services coordinator at a public housing complex. Then, she said, she was inspired by faith to start the organization she’d dreamed of years before.

“The Lord came and said, ‘Now is the time for Women First,’” Olive told The Skanner. She realized the reason it took so long is that she needed 10 years to build connections and learn what resources are already available.

“We’re not her trying to reinvent the wheel,” Olive said.

In November 2017 Olive launched a women’s empowerment group called “I Love Me,” a 12-week program meant to encourage women to learn to love and value themselves. That has been a focus of WomenFirst, but the organization also offers emergency clothing (as well as connecting with Dress For Success to provide professional clothing for interviews and court dates), a meditation and healing space as well as self-care practice.

Now Olive is raising funds for a transitional housing space for women coming out of the criminal justice system, and has begun talking to developers about getting a property for clean and sober housing for women re-entering society after prison.

She’s also working to get incarcerated women added to waiting lists for affordable housing six months before their release date, so they’re more likely to find housing immediately upon release.

Too often, Olive said, women leaving prison don’t have stable housing lined up, and have to rely on their family and friend networks for places to stay. In some cases they can end up staying with friends still involved in criminal activity, can end up in settings that trigger their addictions or end up returning to criminal activities like sex work or selling drugs in order to survive. And finding housing is more difficult for people with criminal backgrounds.

“I just know when a person has a place to live, it’s easier,” Olive said. Most of the women currently accessing services at WomenFirst are looking for housing, she said.

Olive told The Skanner she was drawn to the work because of her own lived experience. She was seven years old when her father died; not long after, she said, her mother began using drugs. Olive went into foster care and ran away when she was 15; at 16, her son was born and was later adopted by another family who changed his name. (The two reunited recently after he sought her out.)

Olive herself began using drugs, but the birth of her second child when she was 19 inspired her to turn her life around. And on reflection, she realized a common thread in all the work she did – beginning with volunteering at church services when she was a child – was the desire to help other people.

“That has always been my desire,” Olive said. This is my purpose in life – to help others.”

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