Published December 19th, 2022 at 2:59 PM3 minute read
Mary Taylor’s life took unexpected turns, as if through a kaleidoscope, on the path that would lead her to be founder of the nonprofit 3 Quarters of the Way Done.
The Avila University graduate had risen in a government career. She worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the 1993 floods, then nearly two decades with the Social Security Administration when that career ended with her resignation and an indictment for misuse of government funds.
She surrendered and was sentenced to serve a year and a day in a minimum security federal prison camp at Greenville, Illinois. She didn’t know it, but her kaleidoscope life was about to find its new purpose.
So many of the women she met in the camp were tumbling toward their impending release frightened and alone. Many had spent years doing harder time behind razor-wire fences. They didn’t have a home waiting like Taylor did in Kansas City. Failure stalked them, written in bold letters. The logistics of starting anew fell on them like a suffocating fog.
Taylor, as she served her light sentence, walked among them, listening.
So many were wishing they had someone on the outside to help. They needed help applying for a Social Security card or birth certificate. Some needed help resolving unpaid traffic tickets or child support. There were so many problems.
“I was taking notes,” Taylor said.
Her new life mission was taking shape in her head. With her experience as a government worker, she knew her way through systems, knew how to do research and – most importantly – knew how to solve problems. She could marshal resources. She could be the help, and comfort, they sorely lacked.
“I might not be able to make you whole,” she told one of her campmates with a promise that would give her mission its name, “but I can get you three-quarters of the way done.”
When she was released in March 2016, Taylor took with her a complete roster of the names and inmate numbers in the camp and her notes.
She began working on as many of their problems as she could, but she also mended hearts. She sent everyone of the women either a Mother’s Day card or a Thinking of You card with encouraging words.
“I wanted to help rebuild their self-worth,” she said. “I wanted to help them with the forgiveness of themselves and let them know at least one person out there has not given up on them.”
Word traveled lightning fast through the prison world, from one facility to another. There was a woman out there who really helped and really cared.
Taylor was helping women get legal work started to modify child support, or get started on guardianship claims. She was getting them onto waiting lists for housing opportunities.
She was researching temporary employment services in specific work fields for women and sending them contact information so they’d have a foot in the door when they got out.
She was even mailing packages of clothes women could wear the day they were released. Nice pants. A colorful shirt. Comfortable shoes.
Soon, letters were coming to Taylor from prisons across the nation. Today, her roster has grown from a couple dozen to more than 200.
Taylor always imagined she would dedicate her time in retirement to helping women. It was where she had long focused some of her volunteer work. But it wasn’t until she found herself a part of a system where women were so often forgotten that she came to understand, these were the women that needed her most.
“I saw how they were being mistreated and neglected by a system that was supposed to help,” Taylor said. “They just need somebody to help them keep it together. They need that outside encouragement. They need a voice on the outside.”
Some fans and supporters of her work are donating materials to her now, but most of her services – the letter stamps, the clothes she buys at clearance sales, document searches and other costs – have come out of her pocket.
Taylor imagines her nonprofit striking deeper roots, perhaps with some office space, getting the clothing racks out of her garage. Someday, she’d like to support an apartment complex that gives women six months of lodging to help them get their feet back on the ground.
In the months to come, she is planning a bed-in-a-bag drive, hoping to offer women just out of prison a fresh set of linen as a comforting symbol of their fresh start.
The pleas for help keep coming. The work only grows.
She’s not done, not even three-quarters of the way.
Joe Robertson is a writer for the Local Investment Commission (LINC). John McGrath is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.