Since its inception in 2009, the Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP) has been empowering and helping previously incarcerated women navigate the barriers faced during reentry into their communities.
While volunteering through a faith-based prison program in 2008, the three founders — Gemma M. Garcia, Patricia Glover and Norel Ruiz — bonded over the shared vision of building a prison education program that would teach inmates essential life skills such as employability, entrepreneurship and comprehensive life skills classes that address cognitive-behavioral and substance abuse issues. Their goal was to create an educational program based on love, forgiveness and practical skills so that women who successfully completed their sentences could productively rejoin their communities and families and avoid future prison sentences.
In 2016, Mahlia Lindquist became the executive director of LEAP and soon recognized two much needed reentry services that were hindering formerly incarcerated women from successfully rejoining society: housing and employment. So she opened LEAP’s first transitional home in 2018 and opened Dragonfly Thrift Boutique that same year.
Since 2009 LEAP has been providing inmates with instruction in entrepreneurship, employability skills and trauma-informed addiction programming. With two graduating classes per year, this 250-hour program prepares women with the essential skills they need to reenter their community successfully. Since the COVID-19 pandemic restricted LEAP’s ability to offer in-person programming in prison, in 2021 they launched the LEAP Virtual Entrepreneurship Academy for formerly incarcerated women. In this 12-week program, participants develop their own business plans, receive one-on-one business and marketing coaching, gain access to start-up microloans and compete for cash prizes in LEAP’s business pitch competition.
LEAP continues to support women post-release through several programs. Since finding safe and affordable housing post-incarceration can be a major challenge for women transitioning from prison, they opened two transitional homes serving as a jumping-off point for women who’ve just been released. LEAP also offers critical employment opportunities through the Dragonfly Thrift Boutique, a social enterprise in Miami that provides paid retail internships that give LEAP Academy graduates their first job post-prison, just steps away from the LEAP House.
LEAP recognizes that no matter how hard the women work, the stigma of a criminal conviction lasts long after they serve their sentences. Therefore, they launched the More Than Project to restore human dignity for formerly incarcerated women by emphasizing that we are all more than our past. As part of the campaign, they developed a social justice–themed fashion collection with designs geared to changing the narrative and language surrounding justice-involved women. Each design is named after a LEAP graduate whose story is available to read online at dragonflythrift.org.
According to Zoe Perito, LEAP’s director of marketing and workforce development, the team is motivated to see positive change in our community. “We all share the core LEAP vision for every woman who has experienced incarceration and who is committed to change to have the opportunity and tools to achieve her full potential,” she says. Perito remains in awe of the graduates she’s had the pleasure to train while working in the program. “They are some of the kindest, smartest, hardworking and resilient women I have ever met. … Working every day with LEAP graduates is by far the most fulfilling part of not only my work but my life,” says Perito.
There are many ways to get involved with LEAP’s efforts. Shop at the Dragonfly Thrift Boutique online or in-store and be sure to check out their More Than Collection. Help spread the word by wearing the collection on social media and tagging them with the hashtag #MoreThanProject. They also accept donations of gently used home décor, furniture, clothing, shoes and accessories. Monetary donations may also be made to support their education, housing and employment efforts. LEAP also has various volunteer opportunities available.