“It feels like I want to tap dance, ice skate, and roller blade,” Junior Gonder says through a grin. She spoke proudly of her upcoming move into an apartment of her own. At age 50, it would be the first time Junior would have her own place to call home, another hard-earned achievement since her 2018 release from prison. After her return to New York City, at the suggestion of her parole officer, Junior scheduled her first appointment at CASES Nathaniel Clinic. Her parole officer told Junior the clinic’s counseling and wellness services might help make the transition from prison back to the community easier. She says healing has been a consistent focus of her clinic sessions with Stephen DeChiaro, a Nathaniel Clinic Therapist.
“She brings so much energy and passion,” Stephen says. “She epitomizes never giving up.”
Not long after starting sessions at the clinic, Junior secured employment at Just Soul Catering after connecting with its founder, Sharon Richardson. Just Soul Catering, a “justice involved social enterprise,” was founded and is wholly owned and operated by formerly incarcerated women. In addition to its catering business, Just Soul also regularly distributes meals to those in need. For Junior, her work at Just Soul Catering is more than a job: the collective experience of cooking and serving high-quality food is a shared, outward expression of her team’s inner gratitude and positive energy.
“Mama used to say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I think that’s the way to everyone’s heart,” Junior says.
Junior’s work as a manager within the sisterhood at Just Soul has inspired her goal of one day opening her own restaurant, which she plans to name after her mother, Daisy. Though Junior relishes her new apartment and her work at Just Soul Catering, she continues to routinely encounter discrimination as a returning citizen.
“Being judged makes me relive my incarceration,” she explains. “I want to live in a world where people who were previously incarcerated receive more empathy. My recommendation for improving the justice system is removing housing discrimination and providing more jobs to returning citizens. We need a chance.”
Although she has seen the worst aspects of the criminal legal system, Junior remains hopeful about new social justice initiatives and efforts to include formerly incarcerated citizens in activism. One source of inspiration cited by Junior is Donna Hylton, a community activist against abuse of incarcerated women.
“Women like Donna give me so much hope,” Junior says. “They reassure me that I too can be a force for progress, despite my long periods of hardship. For 50 years of my life, I never had my own place. I’ve always lived with my brother, my mom, in shelters, and in the streets. Then I went to prison. Women like Donna had it rough like me. We’ve seen it all. I know if they can do it then I can do it, too.”
The support of counseling at CASES Nathaniel Clinic can help individuals like Junior navigate the trauma and anger experienced as they encounter discrimination and stigma upon returning to the community.
“Junior has stood her ground after having doors slammed in her face,” Stephen, her clinic Therapist, says. “We’ve worked through so many challenges together and she always came out thriving. Junior has really come to an understanding that she’s worthy and can do anything she envisions.”
“People are starting to see the real me—the real Junior Gonder,” she says. “It’s not easy, in fact, it’s going to be hard to get where I want to be. But I belong out here and I thank God for giving me my life back. Now that I have it, I know good things are coming my way.”