Becky Jo Tatum wasn’t ready to leave prison.
She’d served all five years of her sentence, and in that time, she’d found a sense of clarity and purpose that she doubted could be replicated outside of those walls.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to find that when I got out,” she says, recalling the sense of fulfillment that teaching GED classes and tutoring other inmates had given her. “I thought, ‘what am I going to do? No one wants to hire me.’”
She hadn’t always fit in there, either, though. When Becky Jo arrived at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, she says she spent a good year and a half in a daze before she realized being locked up was her chance to kick a 22-year-long drug addiction and an equally long habit of trading herself for cash that were spurred by an abuse-filled childhood.
When she finally “came to” she signed up for any and all prison programs that offered therapy and education, including Dress for Success Columbus’ Pathways Program.
As the holder of a home appraisal license and a former Columbus State instructor on the topic, Becky Jo pursued the program’s Green Energy Technology track hoping she’d be able to put the new knowledge to use to renovate properties for sale.
She was placed in a six-week tech company internship that started immediately after her release, and while she was grateful for the assistance of the program that focuses on successful re-entry into society and the workforce, Becky Jo admits she was relieved and excited when Dress for Success Columbus CEO Vicki Bowen Hewes asked her to instead finish her internship in the organization’s suiting boutique.
It was there that she brushed up her resume and interview skills and picked out one of her favorite yellow tops that she says she can’t stop wearing.
“Doing the internship when I got home proved it even further,” Becky Jo says. “It affirmed, yes, yes you can do this. It just kind of redeveloped my sense of security.”
Becky Jo had learned sign language in prison and she was already fluent in Spanish. She also had at her disposal a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University and a history in home rental and sales, but Becky Jo admits she hadn’t put those talents to use as much as she had others that could earn her thousands per night to fund her previously lavish lifestyle.
She knew she was going to need help if she was going to make it through not just a transition to the outside world, but to a whole new life coming out — one that doesn’t include her high-scale neighborhood or her son and daughter who she can’t see without violating her parole.
“Everything I ever acquired as a mother and a spouse in my home life was gone out of my own mistakes,” Becky Jo says. “It was just nice to feel like I could have that added support” of the Dress for Success sisterhood.
Following Becky Jo’s internship, Vicki connected her with another non-profit organization that was looking for a bi-lingual bookkeeper who could set up appointments for Spanish-speaking clients.
Becky Jo planned to drop off her resume in person, but not before stopping by the Dress for Success Columbus boutique for a personal styling session.
Wearing her new grey, two-piece suit, she walked into the organization’s office, and after she met the small staff, she found herself in a familiar situation — she wasn’t ready to leave.
“I just got it in my heart, I’m not leaving this building without this job,” Becky Jo says. And so she didn’t. She’s been working part time there ever since and is currently training to take over a full-time position.
She’s also developing night classes where she’ll teach sign language and working to pull enough grant money together to get back to teaching a GED class that will put to use all the homework assignment samples that she acquired in prison and can’t seem to let go of.
“It is never too late to reinvent yourself,” she says. “If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t keep going.”
Before prison, Becky Jo says she never would have considered that she’d be capable of leading the type of accomplished life that’s she’s working toward now.
“I see every little thing differently now,” she says. “It feels good to be home.”