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The Sky’s the Limit: How a duo is empowering women in the criminal justice system with coaching

By Meghan Ondrish  May 19, 2015

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It’s magical.

That’s how Ivy Woolf Turk and Cheryl Paley both describe the work they are doing with The Blackbird Project at WPA, the program they co-founded and administer at The Women’s Prison Association in New York City. The Blackbird Project combines coaching and arts-based intervention to promote well-being for women who are either currently involved in the criminal justice system or homeless.

But the magic really started when the two met by chance at a writing workshop that Cheryl was teaching. Both of them were facing significant struggles—after serving almost four years of incarceration, Ivy was struggling to make it back into the workforce and Cheryl was facing sudden unemployment, family and health challenges.

Ivy was closing in on her coaching certification and Cheryl became her first coaching client. “We developed a remarkable coaching relationship,” says Ivy. “I was self-managing the whole time, everything she was going through, I was going through. We were both stepping into our power in very different ways.” It didn’t take the duo long to realize that the combination of their skills and experiences could help serve populations that so desperately needed it—women involved in the criminal justice system and the homeless.

What followed was a series of twists of fate. With funding almost nonexistent, the two embarked on a journey of discovery together as Ivy coached Cheryl to envision her true calling. And then the miracle happened. What once seemed to be just a dream suddenly became a reality. Ivy connected to Georgia Lerner, Executive Director of The Women’s Prison Association and Cheryl found out that a former colleague and friend had won a great sum of money and was willing to fund this new idea—the first fusion of Life Coaching and Arts Based Intervention. On Christmas Eve the two received an email from Ms. Lerner informing them that their project had been approved and fully funded.

Today, Ivy and Cheryl are bringing The Blackbird Project to all the women of WPA. This includes programs in their two homeless shelters, their re-entry programs and Justice Home Alternative to incarceration programs. They are also beginning offsite groups with several community partners.

“Women often suffer low self-esteem and depression, as well as the consequences of physical and emotional abuse, which can lead to involvement in criminal behavior and homelessness. We create a sacred circle where women are supported to come into alignment and step into their own power,” says Ivy.

Coaching techniques are at the forefront of their approach. “We use arts based tools to illuminate the presenting agendas and complete each workshop with a coaching session. We often notice it is as transformational for the group as it is for the individual being coached. We’ve witnessed imaginary balls and chains break loose—it’s beyond exquisite” says Ivy.

Adds Cheryl, “It’s the notion that you’re not there to fix broken people. We see them as whole, just the way they are.”

Helping these women holistically align with their true self is Ivy and Cheryl’s goal. “While it’s important to assist them in getting housing and employment, if their actions don’t come from an authentic and integrated place, they won’t be able to sustain them. Currently almost two thirds of incarcerated women return to prison or become homeless. By addressing this issue, we hope to reduce recidivism and homelessness. It is our mission to integrate body, mind and spirit, getting women in touch with their own voices and giving them tools that will help them overcome difficulties, resolve problems and find a confidence they may have never known they had,” says Ivy.

Ivy and Cheryl both feel the power of coaching led them to where they are today. “It was the coaching process that created the container for this to happen. We saw through our own experience that we could offer others the transformation that can occur when one’s greatest obstacles become their greatest opportunity for growth… just like ours did.”

These transformations are happening. “It’s a miracle—we’re seeing it every day in every group,” says Ivy. “The blackbirds have taken flight.”

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To learn more about The Blackbird Project visit www.wpaonline.org/services/blackbird.

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