How Spending Time Behind Bars Inspired One Woman’s Mission

UPDATED: May 21, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 19, 2015

Gregarious and energetic, Kelly Wiley exudes powerful positive energy. But when she talks about the challenges faced by the women her nonprofit organization serves, tears wet her cheeks.

Wiley’s Dallas-based 2000 Roses Foundation helps women transition from prison to productive and healthy lives. She knows that after they serve their sentences, women are hustled out the door with nothing more than a mandate to get a job and make sure they pay their probation and restitution fees.

The system, the authorities—“they don’t care what you do,” Wiley says. “They want you to fail.”

She knows because she has been there. And her time in prison set her on a new course in life, one radically different from that of the girl who got her first sewing machine at age 6 and was soon designing and sewing her own clothes. The teen who was married and a mother at 17, divorced at 18. Or the hardworking Southwestern Bell employee who decided the job wasn’t bringing her joy after five years, which led her to build a business designing and sewing clothes for clients who paid thousands for them. Wiley took business courses and pattern-making classes to learn whatever she needed to succeed.

Wiley and her daughter lived comfortably. “I wasn’t worried about anything,” she says.

Then she entered a bad relationship. “I wanted somebody in my life. I met somebody, and he turned out to be a nightmare. He turned my world upside down…. He was good-looking, sweet.”

Things turned disastrous within a couple of months, and Wiley blames herself. She was so focused on her career and providing for herself and her daughter that she didn’t pay attention to what her boyfriend was up to—like selling illegal drugs. “I just thought, As long as you’re not trying to get me to do drugs, I don’t care what you do.”

She was naïve, Wiley says now. One day her boyfriend borrowed her car, driving it to a drug deal with an undercover cop. Implicated in the crime because of her car, Wiley was sentenced to 31 years in prison after a trial. (The boyfriend was sentenced to 99 years.)

“Everything moved so fast. I thought, I’m not going to make it through this.”

Helped by a new attorney, Wiley was released after 13 months, and her record was cleared.

After Prison

Wiley considers herself fortunate: Family took her in when she was released from prison, and she had resources for finding work. Recognizing at this point that many of her big-spending customers didn’t come by their money honestly, she did not return to sewing. Wiley went to cosmetology school but ultimately decided against a career in that field, too. She started selling cemetery plots, which turned out to be lucrative.

Although she left prison feeling bitter toward the system, her optimistic nature eventually took over. “I was in prison for a reason. I saw what the needs were.” Wiley saw women who cycled in and out of prison, unable to hold jobs, falling back into bad company and bad habits. “I saw an immediate need to have a safe place to go. They needed to learn [marketable skills]. If you’re dependent on people to take care of you, you’re still no better off after you get out of prison.”

And, she says, “I needed to do something with the money I was making.” So in 1998, her friend Alonzo Harris, a real estate developer, helped her find a two-story, nine-bedroom, 4½-bathroom home. Using her own money plus donations and loans from family and friends, Wiley purchased the house and transformed it into a transitional living center for women coming out of prison. In 1999 Wiley and Harris filed for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and co-founded the 2000 Roses Foundation.

Harris cast his lot in with Wiley because he saw that she meant business. “She has great vision and great passion and insight for problem-solving. She had the entrepreneurial skills already, coupled with the tenacity.” On top of that, Harris says he felt an emotional connection to the mission because he was recovering from substance abuse himself.

The foundation’s name draws parallels to caring for roses in a garden. “You start with pruning, cutting back dead stuff, giving it attention, feeding it properly,” Wiley says. “Some [roses] will survive and some won’t, but if you focus on the strong limbs, you force the plant to put its energy into the very best stems.” And since it was nearly the year 2000, they tacked that on to the foundation’s name. “We figured we would help at least that many women. Needless to say, we’ve surpassed that in 16 years.”

Wiley lives in the house with participants in the program, and she made the rooms cozy, sewing curtains, bedspreads and pillows. “I wanted it to be a home, not a shelter.” She uses her cosmetology skills to enhance the women’s appearances.

To help fund the organization as well as provide job training, Wiley opened the resale shop Rose Garden ReMake. Located in a gentrifying neighborhood, Rose Garden ReMake has more in common with a boutique than a traditional thrift store. “I always really hated those stores where you have to dig. This upscale-retail look is a model of what I thought a store could look like. We’re trying to teach the women to think ‘up.’ ”

Along with used clothing, Rose Garden ReMake sells candles, clothing and other items made by women in the program as part of their job training. The women also can learn landscaping and construction skills such as tile-setting and cabinetmaking. These are not women who want desk jobs; “they’re doers,” Wiley says. In addition, the women are taught life skills such as maintaining a bank account and budget, but what Wiley most wants to impart is a work ethic: showing up and getting the job done.

Among 2000 Roses’ community partners are Target, Pizza Hut and Starbucks, which will hire women who pass muster with Wiley. Early on, some women—not ready for the responsibility of jobs—damaged other partnerships, so Wiley learned to be cautious.

She networks with the community, interviews candidates for the program, collects donations (sharing with AIDS Services of Dallas, for example), and spends time at the store with Hazel Quintans, who came to 2000 Roses in 2012 after 36 months in prison for white-collar crime. While Quintans had job skills, “she lacked confidence, and nobody would hire her,” Wiley says. “She needed a chance. She needed somebody to say, ‘You’re going to be great.’ ”

Quintans and Wiley hit it off, so Quintans completed the program but stayed on at the shop while pursuing other fashion-related endeavors. “I’m having fun here,” she says. “It’s kind of a stress-reducer.”

Both women are interested in fashion and are fully committed to the foundation’s mission. The two also complement each other in business, with Quintans’ methodical, organized ways balancing Wiley’s ebullient creativity.

Not every woman who comes through 2000 Roses is a success story like Quintans. “You have to want to make a change,” Quintans says. Some, Wiley concedes, simply don’t last the full two years, but “if they stay that long, they get hooked into a lot.” She can connect them with legal help or education resources, for example, and they develop a supportive network.

Another Success Story

Lashon Parker is another one of the many who lasted. After six months in prison rehab, she was referred to 2000 Roses. A drug addict who had abandoned her children, Parker had made a shambles of her life. Wiley “came like a tornado in my life and took over,” Parker says. “I love that lady.”

The job training she got at Rose Garden ReMake was great, Parker says. So was the example Wiley set as a strong, competent, can-do woman. But more than anything, Parker says, it was the love she felt that was transformational. “She loved on me until I was able to love myself,” Parker says. “She taught me self-love. Without that, you really can’t do anything. You can go through the motions, but if you don’t love yourself, you can’t be successful.”

Today Parker is back in her hometown of Los Angeles, working two jobs while she studies for an associate’s degree in business. “I learned my work ethic at 2000 Roses…. It was a total recovery process for me, and I’m so very grateful and thankful.”

Wiley hopes that many, many more Parkers and Quintanses become part of the foundation’s history. “My vision is to duplicate. If we duplicate enough, we won’t have this issue” of women returning to prison, Wiley says. To that end, she and Harris started traveling to San Francisco for information, inspiration and motivation at the Delancey Street Foundation, a multimillion-dollar leader in turning troubled lives around. In 2005 Delancey Street accepted 2000 Roses as a partner, lending the credibility of the California organization’s name. That in turn opens donors’ doors for Wiley, who wants to see her organization grow. “What we’re doing here is on such a small scale.”

But the impact is enormous for each woman whom 2000 Roses has successfully launched.

Wiley believes that everything happens for a reason and that prison was meant to refocus her life.

And she also says prison taught her something about herself.

“I was stronger than the average person, but I didn’t know it.”

Feeling inspired? Now check out how the three snowboarders behind the nonprofit Krochet Kids are empowering women in Uganda and Peru with hooks and yarn.

Sophia Dembling is the author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.