Toby Dorr
Episode 19

Episode 19

Toby Dorr: Hello, and welcome to Fierce Conversations with Toby, the show where we talk about the hard things. I’m Toby Dorr. In today’s episode, we’ll see how ministry coming from a place of love and support creates a healthy community. Our guest today is Marla Smith, a mother, grandmother, Christian care provider, clinical researcher, and mentor. Because of her sincere love and concern for women and their care, Marla is currently serving as a mentor with  Catholic Charities in their Welcome Home Reentry Program. As a mentor, she works with women who were previously incarcerated, assisting them in their efforts to become re-acclimated to society. Additionally, through her fearfully and wonderfully made ministry, Marla educates young girls about puberty. with a special emphasis on their bodies as they prepare for menstruation. Hi, Marla. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Marla Smith: Hi, Toby. It’s my pleasure. Nice to see you.

Toby Dorr: It’s good to see you again. I like to ask all my guests a question that gives us a peek into who you really are.

Toby Dorr: What’s your favorite color? And what does your color say about you?

Marla Smith: So my favorite color is purple, as is evidenced by these glasses. These just happen to be readers, but purple for me, I like eggplant. So the darker color is my favorite of the shades. However, it symbolizes royalty. When I think about lavender though, you know, lavender is a calming. It’s so helpful to relax. I like to believe that when I enter a room or when I’m interacting with people, I am a presence for calm and relaxation and a comforting spot for them.

Toby Dorr: That’s excellent. And purple really is a powerful color, but it’s also a soothing color. So you can have the whole breadth of what you need with that color. Purple is one of my favorites too. I’m a purple person as well. Can you tell us about a crossroads in your life that pushed you in a different direction?

Marla Smith: So I think probably it happened early in life. My parents divorced when I was 10 and it really forced me to grow up. The home life was challenging and then there was, I used to say we went from riches to rags and my mom probably wouldn’t like for me to say that. But the reality is we went from being comfortable to having to struggle to be able to figure out how to do things. And my mom was a single mom with three girls trying to help us figure it out. And from there, the trajectory was. learning how to speak, not just talk, but to speak so that people could hear and listen. And so that was my process through the years. It took me a minute to get it. But I realized from that little girl, that little teen girl girl to now, I’ve learned that I do have a voice and that I have some things to say.

Toby Dorr: You absolutely do have a voice and I know that you use it well, especially in the D.C. Community. You recently received your master’s degree in Christian counseling. What led you to that field?

Marla Smith: I had spent a lot of time like in my church just doing lay counseling with women, especially women in the 25 to 35 year old age group. I started with little folks as my children were little and then once I was at a different level. I started working with women who 25 to 35 years old for whatever their needs were. I was the person that they would call. And, because of that, in that ministry, I wanted to fine-tune my skillset to make sure I knew what I was saying to them, right? Not just talking off the cuff, but what God says, and then that my words would match my actions and things. So I began pursuing the degree. And I finished it just this past August.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful. I love when you said that your words, you want your words to match your actions. I think that’s a really strong guiding point because our actions even speak louder than the words. So it’s, you know, it makes perfect sense to try to keep them in sync. And, you know, I admire people, especially women who go back and get a degree later in life because. life is busy. You have a lot of responsibilities and it’s crazy. And I know I got my master’s degree in my fifties. So, what was that experience like? You know, going back to school was easier. Was it harder when you went earlier?

Marla Smith: It was easier from the perspective that I didn’t have little folks because it took me a little bit to finish my bachelor’s as well. And I had children. And I had the help of good friends watching my children when I was completing my undergraduate degree. This time it was easier from the perspective that I didn’t have anyone at home that I had to take care of, but I am not a nighttime person, but I found myself up early at night reading and trying to write papers. So it took a toll that way. I am well into my 50s. And a challenge, but as I got closer to the end, I would say that I’m still in the tunnel, but I can see the light and finally, yes, I reached the end.

Toby Dorr: Yes. And, you know, I think it makes a difference too, when you go back and get your master’s degree after you’ve already kind of started a life and have a career and know what direction you’re going.

Toby Dorr: Then you really see the purpose of that degree better than you would if you went when you were 24. And you’re just guessing at what you want to do in life, so.

Marla Smith: Trying to figure it out. Yes, yes.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful. You know, volunteering is a beautiful way to give back to the community. In fact, in 2021, you were named volunteer of the year in the D.C. Area. How does volunteering fill your cup?

Marla Smith: I was gonna say with the last point that it was a perfect segue to talk about the volunteer work that I do because again, with Catholic Charities in their Welcome Home Re-entry Program. It is such a dynamic experience for me. I started working with returning citizens because I had a nephew who had been incarcerated. I met a gentleman who actually had a girlfriend first who had a business called Mission to Mobilization. And so I started working with her and it was a gentle introduction to working with returning citizens. The more I did, the more I wanted to do, the more I wanted to be able to help. And so marrying that with the degree. Similarly, I’m not pushing like Christianity or anything, but the compassion is there. And I think that skill set is enhanced with the degree. But then the more I talk to and work with women, it comes full.

Toby Dorr: Yeah, I think that’s just beautiful. And I can’t think of a group that is more in me than returning citizens because, you know, I served 27 months in prison, which isn’t a long time compared to a lot of people’s sentences. But it was long enough and I like a six-month period of adjustment. It’s just weird coming out. And I certainly didn’t expect that. I thought I’d come back into life and just drop right back in where I left off, but it doesn’t work that way.

Marla Smith: And I think that’s the misconception probably more with women, because we are already very busy, right? Regardless of what our paths are, whether you have children or not, you’re caring for somebody’s child or somebody’s something. So, we’re cooking, we’re cleaning, we’re used to multitasking. So, though I’ve never been incarcerated, working with women who have, they come back to, my life has been going on and now I need to catch up. And I think that that’s what happens. So, yeah, yeah.

Toby Dorr: Yeah, it is true, you know. Your life stops when you are incarcerated and it stops at the point when you went into prison and everyone else outside your children, your family members, your parents, their lives are going on. And when you come out, you’ve missed that chunk of what’s happened and you don’t just drop right back in where you came from. You’ve got to find a new way and you’ve got to tread a new path. So I think that’s beautiful. And I really do think it’s something that I could see mentoring having a big impact on and I know here in the D. C. Area, Georgetown University has a program called the pivot program and they have some students who work with returning citizens. And I think one of the women you mentored went through this program. Can you tell us a little bit about what that program is?

Marla Smith: Sure. Pivot is a program designed by Georgetown University and they work in collaboration with organizations who are willing to support returning citizens. So it’s emphasizes entrepreneurship. The folks who are in the program, you have to apply to be in the program. But once you’re accepted in the program, you do receive a stipend. You have classes that you’re taking at Georgetown University. I mean, with the Georgetown professors, which is excellent. And then you have the opportunity to intern, have an internship with one of the companies that supports the program. The thought is, or the hope is, that you’ll either be hired by the company, you’ll definitely learn so you’re fine tuning that skill set, and then you can either go on with your entrepreneurial efforts, or work for those companies or another company. It’s an amazing program.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s excellent, because one of the hardest things when you’re getting out of prison, I think, is to find a job, and a job that will have a livable salary. I had a bachelor’s degree when I went to prison. And I had had a corporate job, a six figure job, and I expected I would come back and be able to just get a job and move on. I couldn’t even get hired at PetSmart as a dog trainer. You know, it’s unbelievable to me, the barriers that are put up. And so what I ended up doing is starting my own business because I couldn’t find a job in an industry that would pay me enough. So I started my own business and I love that that program teaches women about entrepreneurship because it’s a great way to move forward. I think that’s sound like a beautiful program.

Marla Smith: It is a beautiful program and it’s not just for women. It is for returning citizens though. And you do have to apply and you’re right. It is amazing. The hurdles that returning citizens have to go through in order to just live, right?

Toby Dorr: Yes, just to get by. And I know you’re really familiar with all the opportunities in the D.C. area, but every community has organizations who need volunteers. How would you recommend someone find those opportunities in their local area?

Marla Smith: So other than the trust at Google, there is a place called the Bridge Center at Adams House. And it is in Prince George’s County. The director of that center, his name is Dr. Ron Garrett. He is the returning citizen guru. He is a returning citizen himself and has done TED talks, but he’s a mentor. He facilitates a lot of programs working with so many different areas, but the Bridge Center is literally that. So returning citizens, if you have health care issues, it really is a place to fill gaps in the community for people who are in need of whatever services they offer. He refers to it as the MORCA of PG County. And so, you know, MORCA is the mayor’s office for returning citizens, um, affairs.

Toby Dorr: Excellent. That is excellent. Uh, what is the biggest gap you see when mentoring women reentering society? What’s the most difficult hurdle?

Marla Smith:Just what we were talking about earlier, getting them to just kind of slow down and take their time, right? Because again, especially if it’s a woman who has children. And another caveat is sometimes people don’t tell their children the truth about going to prison, right? So then it’s coming and trying to mend relationships. Either the children know or they don’t know. So if they don’t know, then it’s where have you been? What aside have you been on? If they know, you could be dealing with anger and just trying to mend those relationships. If you have a husband, or significant other. Remember, they may be getting back into their good graces because nine out of ten times you may have been lying to them as well and because we are natural, or I’m just going to put myself in here with women, we naturally have a lot of things that we want to do. We can create a list in our heads, even if we don’t write it down. And that’s one of the things, actually with someone that I’m working with now, it’s just getting her to just take a breath and it’s going to be okay, but we want it all to be done like now.

Toby Dorr: Yeah, I think that’s really good advice. And you know, we actually live in the same house with my stepson and his family. So our grandkids are part of our life every day. And I’ve been really honest with my grandkids about my past and they know I’ve been to prison and they asked me, you know, what they always are interested in knowing more about it. But one day my granddaughter came down and I was on doing an interview, a TV interview. And someone asked me about criminal charges or something. And my granddaughter, you know, she heard that and she came to me afterward and she was just in tears and she said, Grandma, how come you’re a criminal? And I said, well, you know I’ve been to prison. She said, yes, but I didn’t know you were a criminal. Criminals are bad people, you know, so we think they know what’s happened, but, so differently and you in for those moments.

Marla Smith: I think a class or training through called biblio-therapy and books to kind of help children whether the parent is coming home, there’s book to help with that conversation. And you really like being honest is really the best thing, right? I think so. The truth. Yeah. Um, and allowing them to ask whatever questions they may have in trying to explain it. Yeah.

Toby Dorr: Yes. Of course, it was a lot easier for me because my grandkids weren’t even born until 10 years after I was out of prison. I know I would have had a harder time if they’d been in my life while I was in prison, it would have been a lot more difficult. So, yeah, I think, I think I had an easy way out having some time under my belt to get used to talking about my past. Um, I think women’s needs are so different from men’s. And traditionally, most of the re-entry programs that have been developed have been programs developed for men because women don’t go to prison as often as men do. So how do you adapt? Programs to serve women instead of men. What are the some of the differences that you’ve seen?

Marla Smith: But actually other than what we’re talking about before, I think that the needs are the same. One of the things I think about is like with technology changes, depending on how long someone is incarcerated, cell phones may not have been here or they may have been here in a whole different model. So that level of education for women, I think is significant. There is also, a program that we’ve done like with Dr. Garrett, but then another friend of mine found it and it’s a simulation. So it’s not just for women. I think that’s one of the things to point out as well, because women do go to prison. But I think we see more on the media of men going, right? But women are dealing with some of the same things. And so the difficulty from getting health care, finding a job, finding housing, having enough money to do. It’s all the same for either male or female. But the simulation it takes people through like a day in the life or a month in the life of someone who’s returning home and all of the different things that you need to have in place. It’s an interesting thing. Would love to invite you to participate in the next time.

Toby Dorr: I would love to do it, actually. So yes, be sure and call me.

Marla Smith: It’s a great experience. I’ve done it as a volunteer. I mean, I used to work with a friend of mine, but I’ve done it as a volunteer just sitting at a table like health care table. So, if you come and you don’t have all of these documents in place, then I have to send you back to your probation officer. It’s really an interesting dynamic. I really think that there, and maybe it’s because I’m so involved, but I really believe that there’s becoming more of an awareness of helping returning citizens or the needs for the services that they require.

Toby Dorr: All of society benefits if we reintegrate people into society and they can become contributing members, nobody wins if they end up going back to prison. That’s not a win for anybody. I think society has a huge stake in successful reentry.

Marla Smith: Yeah, I agree. Looking at recidivism rates, what you just said is absolutely pertinent. If we don’t support it, then that’s what’s going to happen. It’s just going to be kind of a revolving door. And I do think that it would be great if we could start even in advance of folks coming home. Like if you just start working with people, even if it’s three months in advance of them coming home. I agree. So that they’re starting to get re-acclimated and then doing those check-ins. The programs are great. The program that we have with Catholic Charities, the Welcome Home Reentry Program is excellent, the mentoring piece, but we also partner with other organizations for transitional housing to support in those ways as well.

Marla Smith: And I think doing the check-in, so that’s why the mentoring helps. I have a weekly conversation with my mentees. We do once a month face to face if we can. During COVID it was a little bit different, but I did Zoom calls and it really makes a difference. People know that you care.

Toby Dorr: It does make a difference because, you know, when I was released from prison, I was at a federal prison in Houston, Texas, and it was in a high rise building downtown and they just said, here’s your paperwork, go out the door, you have a bus ticket at one o’clock, and it’s like, how do I get to the bus station? I was perfectly capable of getting myself to a bus station before I went to prison. But those months in prison, I don’t even know how to, you know, go take a shower without being told it’s okay. So, it’s such a different mindset. And I was really stunned at how inept I felt because I was a pretty strong person who was always in control of my life. And even I felt like I didn’t know the next step.

Marla Smith: And that what you just shared is a phenomenon. It happens all the time. Here you go. And so, but I’m supposed to be an upstanding citizen, right? I’m not supposed to go back to whatever my other ways are. I’m supposed to just make it. And that’s why like the Breeze Center at Adams House, Catholic Charities, Major Provo, that’s why these MORCA, that’s why these organizations exist because people need the help. But the thing is getting the information to them before they come home. Giving a bus ticket to someone and say, find your way. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have a dime if there are even pay phones anymore. What am I supposed to do? And quite honestly, even listening to you share that, and I know that I’ve had mentees, it breaks my heart, like really and truly I’m holding back tears because of the lack of concern from people who you would think should understand. It’s basic compassion, their basic needs. We go back to psychology and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you know that people have things that they require. So why wouldn’t we try? I’m, just trying to do my little part.

Toby Dorr: I think it’s beautiful. I think what you’re doing is just beautiful. Do you stay in touch with women you’ve mentored after you’re no longer mentoring them?

Marla Smith: Some of them. Yes. A couple of them. I’ve been in touch with others. I’m sure some probably want to forget about it all and just move on. The ones who are relatively my contemporaries, we are able to stay in touch. And I’ll tell you, , it makes me think of the first time, like in advance of COVID. We used to have group meetings, weekly group meetings with some of the women who were at some of the transitional housing back at the Catholic Charities office. And so I remember that first time I was going to one of the group meetings and I thought, What am I going to do? I’ve never been incarcerated. I won’t be able to relate to these women. And it took two seconds, right, to get into a room full of women to know that we are just women. We all have a story. We all have a circumstance. I just had never been incarcerated, but I had other things in common with so many other women there. It was beautiful. And that was also a way for the potential mentees to meet potential mentors. We would be in a room together just sharing and then you could connect with someone and then, you know, develop the relationship that way. That was great. Now it’s more Zoom and conversations. We are able to do some face-to-face now.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s excellent. You know, and women need that kind of emotional supportive connection. I think it’s just almost like breathing for us. And a mentor is a perfect solution. I think that’s just beautiful work. What can someone do to help if volunteering doesn’t work for them? What other avenues do they have to be part of a solution?

Marla Smith: So when we say volunteering, like maybe mentoring isn’t that type of thing, but there are other ways of volunteer services, like even making phone calls. So you don’t necessarily have to develop a relationship with someone if you’re uncomfortable, but there are other things that are needed. Even if it’s donating things, participating, like I said, in a simulation, you’re not necessarily mentoring or having to provide advice to someone, but you definitely can make a phone call or do administrative work because again, for as much as we believe that there should be a wider view for what’s going on, um, we need more support and it could look at all kinds of ways. Ron Garrett, Dr. Garrett is amazing. You see, you tell them you’re interested in doing anything. If, whether it’s volunteer, whatever it is, I promise you, it’ll find something for you to do to help the cause. He’s busy, but he’s accessible and it’s great.

Toby Dorr: That’s excellent. I love hearing that. You’ve also started a personal mission, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made Ministry. Can you share with us your vision for that organization?

Marla Smith: Yes, that is the one best. I spend time with little girls, young girls.So between eight, probably is the youngest to maybe 11 years old, educating them about puberty, having a conversation with them really about puberty and their bodies. And the emphasis is on them learning and understanding their menstrual cycle. So it’s not just that you’re going to have a cycle, but it’s, this is what happens when your egg leaves the ovary and the path that it takes and why it occurs and what God says about our bodies. And I’ll tell you some of the conversations, some of the questions with so much fun. The girls are fine. And so it’s all, there’s always something that makes me say, okay, wait, well, and so it’s a room just with the girls. You know, without parents. I did do it recently and I have my goddaughter was with me and she was just listening in because her daughter was part of the conversation. And it’s amazing the girls because nowadays, even though, you know, parents, I’m sure monitor, but there’s so much that can feed information to our children. So my desire is just that they understand it correctly. Long term. It could be a means for understanding pregnancy or unwanted pregnancy, preventing understanding that this is something that happens, why it happens.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s so beautiful, you know, that we get that out there because I remember myself when I had my first cycle, I was just like dumbfounded, like, what? This is like, this is, I don’t want this, you know, why did I go through this? And I just think it’s difficult Well, no, I won’t say it’s difficult. I’d say it’s kind of awkward to have that conversation with your mother. I think having it in a group, you know, that you feel safe, nobody’s going to say, what are you thinking? So it’s an unbiased setting to have a really difficult discussion about something that we all encounter and there’s no way around it. I love that idea.

Marla Smith: Yeah. And the moms are really grateful as well. It’s interesting. They are really grateful because similarly they share their stories of their first cycle and like, oh my goodness. So, and one of the things that we do as well as we provide the girls with a kit to put in their backpack. So in case they have their cycle at school so that they are prepared and it’s really a lot of fun. It’s really a good thing for them.

Toby Dorr: I think it would be. And definitely something that we don’t talk about because who wants to talk about that, you know, but it’s so necessary. And I think it would take away the whole stigma of, oh, this is something I should hide. I should be embarrassed about, , and brings it out into the open as this is part of life.

Marla Smith: I remember being embarrassed going to buy sanitary products. Yes, that’s what makes it a necessary conversation. And so yeah, I am enjoying having it.

Toby Dorr: What’s one question you wish I’d asked you? Is there something you’d like to share that we haven’t talked about?

Marla Smith: So, one thing I wish you’d ask me, that it’s not necessarily related to the ministries, but it’s how we met. And not so much about the person who introduced us, but just the idea of networking.

Marla Smith: Yes. ’cause you know when I look at you, I look at me, people might see us and never imagine us having met. Or being friends or connected in any way.

Toby Dorr: Like how did they come to be?

Marla Smith: That’s right. But the reality is it’s because of people like you who are willing to share their stories. We’ve met through my friend Kathryn, and that’s how we connected. She’s someone who’s sharing the story. I have a story we do as women. Supporting women, women loving women. I just think that that’s the kind of thing that we need to be doing and so that would be the question.

Toby Dorr: Yes. I think that’s a great question. You know, Kathryn connected me with like three or four great women that I’m just falling in love with. So she was a great source. But if you don’t ask the question, you don’t find the people you’re looking for. So, you know, don’t be afraid to talk about what’s in your heart and, and be open to other people coming into the journey with you. Because boy, does it make life richer.

Marla Smith: Those are iconic words, seriously, I think that’s what happens. And especially with relationships, like we have them with whomever our girlfriends are. And we may have limited conversations with them, but being able to expand the conversation, that’s how we got to this. And so I think that that matters for everyone, no matter where we are.

Toby Dorr: Even you, Marla, you’ve introduced me to someone else, whom I’m having on my podcast too, whose name is Carla. So Marla and Carla, but you know, it just happens, you just talk to people and you find someone else to bring into your circle. Yes. It just expands your network. So, you know, be open, be open out there and talk about what you’re doing. I think that’s beautiful.

Toby Dorr: Remember, none of us is our worst mistake. We all have so much more to offer the world. And those so-called mistakes are blessed opportunities to learn and grow. Next week, we’ll continue to bring you inspiring stories by people who’ve identified a need for change and are working to make a difference in the world. Subscribe to our Patreon channel, Fierce Conversations, for special access and behind the scenes info. Go to / fierceconversations or click on the link in the show notes. Ten percent of the Patreon proceeds are dedicated to providing workbooks to women in prison. The show notes will also provide a link to a website where you can reach Marla. And a link to purchase my memoir, Living With Conviction. As I talk about in depth in my memoir, I had a conversation in prison where my friend Lisa told me. “In here, we can talk about all the hard things. In fact, I think we must, and so we shall.” This is Fierce Conversations with Toby, where we talk about the hard things.

Toby Dorr: Until next time.

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