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Debra Stanley: reaching out to 'the other'

Debra Stanley with one of her clients

One of Debra Stanley’s first jobs when she graduated from school was to guard inmates  in California’s notorious San Quentin Prison.
“I worked all shifts, all sectors, including death row,”  recalls one of the 2016 winners of the Dorothy Richardson Leadership Award. “It was frightening at times, but it was also enlightening. If you respect the inmates, they respect you. They educate you, and even look out for you. To be honest, I feared my fellow corrections officers more than I did the inmates.”
That willingness to empathize with the “other,” including those in or recently released from prison, has been a trademark of Stanley throughout her life. Today, she lives in South Bend, Indiana, and has extended her compassion to substance abusers, those at risk of AIDS, and other misunderstood and vulnerable individuals. It’s that track record that earned her a seat on the board of directors of NeighborWorks member South Bend Heritage Foundation.
Debra Stanley: Empathizing with the 'other'
Debra Stanley's willingness to empathize with the “other,” including those in or recently released from prison, has been a trademark of hers throughout her life.

Stanley returned to her original home town of South Bend when she was 34 and the mother of a child with Down syndrome who needed heart surgery. Her first years back home with her father were spent caring for her disabled daughter. However, when she was ready to go back to work, a local free health clinic for people without health insurance seemed a natural fit for her empathetic personality. Stanley sought to identify and remove the non-medical barriers to patients’ ability to access health care—arranging transportation, visiting homes to assure medications were taken, etc.
“I worked there part-time for four years and saw pretty quickly that while the system was good at treating the medical part of people’s problems, it was doing very little about prevention,” she recalls.
Her growing interest in outreach and prevention led Stanley to approach a local AIDS service agency and convince the staff to allow her to build a volunteer program that included peer-education for youth. Three years later, her efforts had been so effective that she was offered a full-time, paid position—and then, later, as a master HIV trainer supporting the Red Cross, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and elsewhere. For five years, Stanley traveled all over the country on her mission.

Hosebackriding is one of the activities of Stanley's outreach work.
In 2003, however, she decided it was time to settle back down in South Bend, and she founded Imani Unidad (imani is Swahili for “faith” and unidad is Spanish for “unity”).
“Imani Unidad was founded to be a ‘gap filler’,” Stanley explains. “There wasn’t much in the way of support for women or blacks with HIV or AIDS at the time. I wanted to show that with faith in humanity and unity we can do so much good.”
To involve the next generation of community leaders in her work, as well as tap into a much-needed source of creativity and consulting power, Stanley also serves as a community-based learning coordinator for the University of Notre Dame. Students from anthropology and restorative justice classes are assigned to her program for “practical life experience” in their fields.
One of the gaps Stanley and her organization has stepped in to fill in South Bend harkens back to her time in California – the burgeoning number of black men who are imprisoned and then released back into the community, where they often have a difficult time re-establishing independence.
“Our peer-to-peer program offers long-term, intensive support and counseling,” she explains, adding that when she began the program two years ago, there was not a single black male therapist in the community. She had to recruit one. “When these people come home, they have a hard time transitioning back. Many times, for instance, they’ve been raped in prison. Or maybe they just haven’t forgiven themselves, if they need forgiving.”
In addition to counseling, the program helps participants obtain a driver’s license, housing and—through a partnership with Goodwill Industries—employment.

“As a society, we put up so many barriers to reintegration,” notes Stanley. “At Imani Unidad, we try to tear them down.”