Non-profit leader works for families of ‘left behind’ prisoners
It was a “chaotic” summer morning in 1986 when Ann Edenfield heard 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 real estate office in Albuquerque for conspiracy to import drugs.
At the time, she was on maternity leave with a newborn, while caring for their three other young sons.
“Overnight, I became a leper,” says Edenfield Sweet, who has since remarried and taken her second husband’s name. “None of the neighbors would come. The boys couldn’t play with anyone. You can’t imagine the stigma.
Also, no one from the church she had been with for over a decade contacted her, and she was stripped of her position as Cub Scout leader.
Edenfield Sweet’s humiliation and forced isolation led her to create what is now called Wings For LIFE International, a non-profit organization for prisoner families that provides life skills, training, support and education. “Everyone helps the prisoner, the drug addict, the problem child,” she says. “Who works for the families of those left behind?
Now, the high-profile organization is gearing up to add job training to its long list of offerings through a new program called Wings WORKS. A center of professional and manufacturing skills, it will offer four months of practical training, as well as lessons in financing, marketing and business skills.
The former flight attendant who once owned a second home in Jamaica has found a profound way to connect with families who have lived different lives and may be nothing like her.
“The first thing I tell them is, ‘Yes, my first husband went to prison, and that’s why I started this programme,’” 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 are looking for a building that will be the headquarters of Wings and will house Wings WORKS. (A woman) who entrusted us with her 37-year-old ceramics business, including her client list – we’re going to teach people how to do this and fulfill orders. We have paint, canvas, sewing machines, thread, fabric. So people can just come in and use that stuff and see if they can start making a living, and they can put it on our website. The guy who rebuilds bikes for us, he’s going to teach people how to do that. They will learn how to manage their budget. They will open their own current account.
Is there a particular person or family you have helped that you are proud of?
“Our council chairman, Don Shapiro, knew an 18-year-old, William, who was coming out of the juvenile justice system. When Don got to know him, William said he had a father he thought was in jail in Santa Rosa. His father was arrested when he was very young, and he doesn’t really remember him and has never heard of him. He wonders, does his father think of him, remember him, whatever. We were doing a family (jail) day in Santa Rosa, so I took William with me. On the way, he was literally shaking and hyperventilating. I used my flight attendant training and gave her my lunch bag (to breathe in.) So the inmates started coming in, and I had families sitting in the front row, then inmates came second. 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 is this man who was all tattooed, very heavy. This man, this inmate, looked at William and said. “You have my son’s eyes, William. They hugged on the chairs. Well, that was the most beautiful thing to see. Here’s this 40-year-old dad, tattooed, all the gang stuff. So now they’re making Cheerio necklaces and making bookmarks together. At the end of the day, they were just kissing and laughing.
Do you ever get depressed by the things you see?
“I always say that I am the eternal optimist. I always see that if something didn’t happen this time, well, what can you do next time? Each failure is another chance to show what went wrong.
Was there a particular incident that inspired you to create Wings?
“People don’t understand shame. For me, I had won all kinds of awards, I had been highly respected at one time, but now I am a piece of dirt. I tried to trick him by telling people, “My husband and I are separated. Well, we were separated. I wasn’t lying. They were like, ‘Well, what is he doing?’ I would 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 particularly qualified to teach others how are you going to handle this? »
What do you do in your free time?
“I have grandchildren. And I like to lead people on mission trips. All the flying years you know you’re staying in a hotel and getting to know the people at the front desk, but not the real people in life.
Where have you been on your travels?
“I made 10 trips all over Russia. I have dear, dear, dear Russian friends who I know would not agree with everything that is happening in Russia right now. I’ve been to prisons all over Russia, I’ve been to prisons all over India, I’ve been to all prisons in Kenya. I brought the Kenyans to the prisons. Families could visit us from outside, but others—pastors, other leaders—could not come in until we arrived. We modeled how that might happen, and now Kenyans can go to their jails. I went to Liberia and was active there.
Do you have any regrets?
“When I was in a sorority, the new pawns asked all these questions. At the time, I said, ‘On my deathbed, I mean I’ll live every day of my life again. And I can honestly say I’ve lived every day of my life, and I’ll live even the bad days again. I tell everyone I know, ‘I’m the richest person I know, I just don’t have a ‘silver.’ Really, I am. Because of relationships, people. How would I know the people who come with school supplies? How would I know the people who donate to us, the people who volunteer with us, families that I can touch, help, encourage and give hope? What I do is the most joyful thing in the world, because I can give people hope and let them know that there is a another way.