Kimberly Woodson was almost locked away forever. We should all be grateful she wasn’t. Not only has she started a Detroit-based nonprofit to help others reintegrate into the community after coming home from prison, Safe & Just Michigan is lucky enough to welcome her onboard as one of our two new fund development fellows.

As a teen, Kimberly was sentenced to life in prison in 1988. In 2017, she was released after a series of Supreme Court rulings ordered a review of all juvenile life sentences.

The world Kimberly was released into was much different than the one she knew 30 years ago. The communities had changed, technology had advanced and it would have been very easy for Kimberly to focus her energy on adapting to her new reality.

But she didn’t.

Kimberly remembers attending a rally on Father’s Day in support of changing laws for juvenile offenders not long after she was released. She listened to the speakers at the rally and while they were well-intentioned, missed the mark at times. She felt the voice of someone who had her perspective was needed.

“I experienced it,” Kimberly said. “I lived it and the [people] that were helping, or trying to help the situation, didn’t really have all the necessary input.”

Ever since, Kimberly has been an advocate for criminal justice reform. She has spoken on panels, shared her story with news outlets and advocated for policy changes.

In the five years since her release, Kimberly has given so much more than just her voice. She created “Redeeming Kimberly,” a nonprofit organization that seeks to aid anyone who needs help, but especially those impacted by the justice system.

Kimberly thinks about what she’s needed in various phases of her life – before, during and after her incarceration. That’s what she tries to provide to others, along with the support she so desperately needed.

“At the very beginning, when I was 17 and young, if someone had taught me about what proper self-esteem looks like, or taught me to properly communicate, or how to recognize trauma and how to cope with things, and how to dream and have visions — things like that — [I think about] how my life would have been different,” Kimberly said.

Kimberly is the glue for people who need services, connecting people to the services available to them. And if she can’t find the appropriate place to send them, she helps herself.

“If I can’t find the resource, Redeeming Kimberly becomes the resource,” she said.

Kimberly has an eight-week empowerment program where she works with inmates on how to transition out of jail. She hopes to interact with people at a critical time in their lives, to provide them with the guidance they need to move forward.

“I want to be transitional, I want to catch people at their weakest, most vulnerable moment, while they’re questioning everything,” she said.

The responsibility Kimberly takes on is enormous. She knows how important it can be for people at a crossroads to do serious reflection. She also knows they need to have their most basic needs covered before they can engage in that reflection and self-improvement.

“I’m trying to give them the foundation that they can use to make it on their own,” she said. “Give them enough tools so they can make decisions about their life better.”

Working as a fund development fellow for Safe & Just Michigan, Kimberly will help with grant writing and other fundraising. While Kimberly’s insight and incredible work ethic is a tremendous addition to the Safe & Just team, the experience will also help her grow Redeeming Kimberly.

Kimberly explained that when she was released, she just wanted to help people. With Safe & Just Michigan, Kimberly will learn grant writing skills and build the connections she needs to expand the reach of her nonprofit. Up to this point, she’s been aided by a few volunteers but has not been able to have paid staff to help out.

The work Kimberly’s done and the lives she’s changed over the last five years are not her proudest achievements. That honor goes to her two daughters, born 30 years apart.

Kimberly had her first daughter as she was going through the legal process as a juvenile. While there was pressure to give her up for adoption, Kimberly’s mother stepped up to raise the child while she was incarcerated. The two built and maintained a close relationship through monthly visits.

“We have a very strong bond now,” Kimberly said. “I love my sweetie to death.”

About a year after Kimberly was released, she gave birth to her second daughter, who is now four. She will now get to experience all the aspects of parenting she missed out on during her sentence.

Today, Kimberly is thankful for just about everything. She’s grateful for the time she’s able to spend with her daughters, for the opportunity to redeem herself and for her freedom.

“Even my worst day [now] is better than my best day in prison,” she said.


~ Lucas Day
Social Work Intern