Two years ago, Jessica Christopher applied to be part of the staff at the Momentum Center for Social Engagement
. It was a long shot, she knew.
What made her a good fit for the position was her life experience. She had gone from honor roll student to heroin addict to felon and then to a fresh start.
During her time in the state’s only women’s prison in Ypsilanti, she launched a youth deterrent program, taught GED classes, participated in Shakespeare Behind Bars, and watched out for fellow prisoners who were struggling emotionally.
“All the things I did behind bars made me capable for this job,” Christopher says.
She listed those accomplishments but it was unclear that she was a returning citizen, recalls Barbara Lee VanHorssen, Momentum Center’s executive director and co-founder.
“I remember getting her resume and just kind of going, ‘Something's not quite right, and yet there's something really good about this person,’” says VanHorssen. “And then, when I met with her and put all those pieces together, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is the right person.’ She's been great.”
Momentum’s teen program coordinator since 2018, Christopher has excelled in the role. She visits high schools to give lessons about stigma and mental health, and leads group discussions at the center, as well as creating social and recreational programming.
“She gave me a chance when I didn't think that I would ever get another chance,” says the 34-year-old, whose brown eyes light up when she smiles.
Christopher seems at home in the small office she shares with a coworker. Her end is decorated with photos of smiling loved ones. She’s comfortably ensconced in her chair, with a leg tucked under her as she shares her story.
“The best part about working with Barbara is the fact that she comes alongside you,” says Christopher, her voice cracking. “She understands that not everybody's path is the same and embraces what we have to offer and our life experiences.”
Sharing her history
Initially, Christopher wanted to keep her history separate from her professional identity. And then, VanHorssen asked her to speak about stigma at an Inspire event, Momentum’s monthly forum that gives the community an opportunity to hear from panelists talking about issues that impact the disenfranchised.
Jessica Christopher speaks with Barbara Lee VanHorssen, director of the Momentum Center.
“I was only going to talk about addiction and the stigma around addiction and talk about recovery. And then I asked Barbara, ‘Do you want me to put out the prison stuff?’ Because I was sitting here trying to promote a program and build a program and build trust from parents and the community, and she's like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’”
It was at that moment that Christopher had an epiphany that it was time to own her story and use her painful lessons to help others.
“You never know who might be listening,” she says.
‘What do you know?’
Since then, she has had conversations about her past with some of the teens at the center. The first time was when she heard a few of them talking about marijuana, which is a rare occurrence. When she made a comment, they shot back, “What do you know about it?”
“I was like, ‘Guys, I was a heroin addict. I went to prison for five years. Like, I know a lot about it.’”
She remembers they were floored. But there was also a connection that hadn’t been there before the revelation. Her authenticity drew them closer to the Momentum Center.
“I think that, as adults and parents, we try to hide the things that we've done wrong, and that's not protecting our kids, that's sheltering them in a way,” she says.
Since that watershed moment, those teens and others occasionally bring up her past when they want to talk about friends or themselves using drugs or alcohol.
“So they are a little bit more open about that, but they don't ask specifics about prison, which is funny, because every adult does,” she says.
Honor roll to addict
In high school, Christopher probably seemed the least likely person headed to prison. She grew up in a supportive family in a rural community outside of Grand Rapids, where she excelled at nearly everything. She was on the honor roll, a cheerleader, class president and active in her church youth group.
Then she went to college and started experimenting with drugs, which escalated over nine years from marijuana to opioids to heroin.
“You don't know until it's too late,” she says, describing the disease of addiction. “I started experimenting with drugs, and it got progressively worse. I could see other people just doing it on the weekends and being OK, but I couldn’t do it.
“Anytime that I would get in trouble or there'd be any consequences, people would bail me out,” she says. “You can fool people pretty well until you can't anymore. I just never worked a program of recovery. I was in denial that I had a problem.”
Her life finally spiraled out of control when she was jobless and was so desperate for the expensive high, she joined similarly desperate addicts doing home invasions.
Ph.D. in life
It’s only since coming to the Momentum Center that Christopher is beginning to see what felt like a shameful chapter in her life as part of her personal growth. Or, as a friend calls it, her Ph.D. in life.
Working with others at the Momentum Center who have their own stories of struggle has also given her perspective.
“I get a constant reminder that my life isn't that bad, and I get to watch people grow and I get to watch them support one another. And I think that's important in life, because we're all in this together.”