HPR Hero CAROLYN LeCROY
“I was only in my thirties. Being the oldest in my family, I had to be the one to tell the doctors to take my mother off life support.”
As far as she can look back at her life, that was the first time Carolyn LeCroy was faced with the hardest, most painful decision of her life. “We all knew my mother was not going to pull through. I just had to do the right thing.”
With a successful career in a local media channel in Norfolk, Carolyn had everything one could ask for professionally. Personally, she was at an extremely ‘happy place’, with two beautiful boys and a loving husband. “George, my husband used to work as an air traffic controller. We were very comfortable with our lives.” But one day, he lost his job. “Everything went spiralling down thereon.”
For years they struggled emotionally and financially. Communication between them broke down. They failed to pay bills and Carolyn struggled to get higher paying jobs to fill in the gap. “We finally separated.”
“I left my job at the agency and took up a job as a restaurant manager. The pay was much higher,” Carolyn says.
Life started to pick up slowly for Carolyn, as it seemed to offer her a second chance, both in life and in love. “I met the most charming man. He was customer at the restaurant. We got talking. He was the most attentive man ever. Constantly wanting to be with me, talking to me, flattering me.” One thing led to the other, and before she knew it, they were in a relationship. “We moved in together while he spoiled me and my children. He took them out everywhere, treating them to a luxurious life.” Carolyn was happy. She had made for herself once again, a home she could call her own.
“Abuse comes in so many forms. It’s not always physical,” Carolyn goes on to say in the same breath which has so far captured so many of her unfinished dreams. “Never once had he laid his hands on me. But I did not know until later that I was being emotionally abused all the while I was with him.”
While traveling through life’s journey, one tends to overlook a lot of things in the best interest of ‘the larger picture.’ Perhaps the larger picture in Carolyn’s case was a happy home after a failed marriage. For the security for her children. For her own self. For love.
“He tried to get me to quit my work, so I could depend completely on him. He deposited money in my bank, just as security for me. I didn’t understand a lot of things then.” Carolyn quit her job and became completely dependent on him. We will call him Steve for the purpose of this story, as Carolyn prefers not to disclose his real name.
For long Carolyn believed all of Steve’s wealth was coming in from his business. Until one day they met a couple while they were traveling to Mexico. That trip finally opened her eyes as she for the first time stumbled upon the truth. The man she was building her dreams with all this while was in reality, a drug dealer.
“And that was the end. I kicked him out even as he begged me to go back to him but what was done was done.”
Hurt, scared and confused, Carolyn started her life yet again as she went back to her old life; just her and her two boys. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do to support myself at that point." But life just had to go on no matter what, for the sake of her children. She picked up all of life’s little pieces and started yet again. And as she worked her way back into reality and learned to live with shattered dreams, her hatred for Steve grew in some corner of her heart. The lies and the deceit, the cheating, the manipulation all started making sense to her now. How could she not see it before? How did she allow him to manipulate her? How did he play with her emotions and with the lives of her children? Questions came to haunt her over and over again, and remained in her mind, unanswered.
Until one day, a year later, Steve called her again. Carolyn agreed to meet him. “I wanted closure,” she says. “I wanted to meet him one last time to face all of my hatred within me. To answer all those questions that I had no answers for.”
Steve and Carolyn met one last time that night. “He had moved on and was happily settled in Mexico with someone else. It didn’t bother me,” says an undisturbed Carolyn. Love had given way to hatred, and hatred to indifference. But she had finally, just over dinner that night with him, realized that she hated him no more. “I finally had my closure.”
Steve and Carolyn parted ways as friends, and all was forgiven and forgotten. Steve asked her for one last favour, where he could use her storage room to be able keep some of his luggage as he was traveling. She obliged, as she gave him the combination to the lock of her storage unit and said goodbye to him one last time. Carolyn was happy, for she could finally move on and ahead with her life without harbouring any ill feelings.
“I can’t remember very well now was it that same night or the next morning,” Carolyn tries hard to remember, “when the police came to my house and took me to jail.”
What followed in Carolyn’s life was pure hell. “It was like I was having an outer body experience,” she remembers. “Here I was, never even having received a parking ticket in my life, taken to jail by a bunch of police officers.. I was numb, in an absolute state of shock.”
The police, the handcuffs, the women’s ward, the imprisonment was to become Carolyn’s life for the next two years. “Truth didn’t quite hit me until after I was thrown in prison.”
Carolyn’s biggest mistake was trusting Steve for the first time several years ago. Her next mistake, and what proved to be even bigger than the first one, was trusting him for the second time round.
“I had been framed.”
Police found drugs inside Carolyn’s storage unit while Steve escaped the country.
Carolyn went through a mixed wave of anger, sadness, hatred, shock, desperation and helplessness all at once. She got charged with the illegal possession of drugs with intent to distribute and for conspiracy. The judged slapped a $250,000 bond on her plus what was to be a lifetime in prison for illegal possession of drugs and conspiracy. All she wanted to do now was prove her innocence. But nobody was listening.
They say true love can only go so far, but returns home when the night falls.
One was Carolyn’s mother. “She never really ever left me, and has been my angel all along after passing away.” The other was her ex-husband George, who came back in her life when she needed a friend the most. “George stood by me right through my darkest days,” she says, grateful for him to this day. “He sold off the condo, and arranged for the entire bond amount.” Carolyn cooperated with the police the entire time she was imprisoned. “But they disconnected my phones and all other forms of connection while I was being transferred to another prison.” She didn’t know where she was being taken to, nor was her family informed. Helplessness overcame her as all she could think about now were her young children.
“I just sat there and thought about my kids,” her voice breaks. “I missed touching them, kissing them, holding them.” Lawyers, judges and cries for help, no stone was left unturned to prove her innocence. But her path seemed to have been chalked out because of one wrong decision she made.
Then came the day of family visitation. “I could see my children!!”
The excitement, the hope, the fear, the nervousness of meeting ones children while a parent is locked up is a feeling very few can relate to, and much less understand. “As outsiders, we know so little about the prison system. We know nothing about inmates, nothing about what goes on inside until one of us is hit violently with reality.” Starting from understanding the personal reasons behind the judge slapping an exorbitant bond fee of $250,000 who had incidentally lost his own daughter to drug abuse, to understanding women in her ward desperate to meet their children, to seeing wronged convictions to those who repented their actions, to how horrifically inmates were treated by some, it was as though Carolyn had her eyes open to a planet she never knew existed.
“We all had to suffer the biggest indignity, as we went to meet our family on visitation days. Each time before meeting them and each time after meeting them, we would have to go through the most humiliating, shaming strip searches. And each time, I remember thinking, ‘I will endure this. Because it allows me to see my children.’
Carolyn, determined to come in front of the boys, happy and strong, strived to disconnect from her reality. “Anything was worth being with my boys.”
“My oldest boy was very angry with me,” remembers a disheartened Carolyn, whose boys were young teens by now. “I wasn’t there for him. His anger towards me was justified.” The younger one who was more supportive, expressed his emotions differently. But one thing ran common between both the boys: “Neither ever stopped saying that they love me.”
George, standing by her side right through, emotionally and physically, tried everything to bring her back home. Lawyers and friends, he went to them all. “He would have my boys write cards for me and send them to me.”
There was once a time when Carolyn was at a crossroad of her life, when she had to decide to let go of her mother. Today, years later, she faced the same situation once again. To her, she knew she was to be in prison for the rest of her life, and so she decided to tell her sons not to visit her as often so they could lead normal lives on their own, away from her. “They were young boys now and had their own lives to lead. I didn’t want them to waste their time every weekend, travel the long distance from the house to my prison to see me.”
Months went by. “I missed their birthdays, graduation and Christmas. It was the hardest thing to be separated from them.”
If only she could reach them somehow, was all she thought. If only the judges would release her from the false accusations was all she prayed for. If only she could tell her family every day of her life how much she loved them and how much they meant to her.
Little did she know at the time, that whatever happens, happens for a reason. Reasons we tend not to see or understand at the time.
“Then one day, just like that, I got a call to the counselor's office. This was after I had been called in for parole hearing. ‘Carolyn,’ “they told me,” ‘you’ve made it! You can go back home!’
Words that Carolyn didn’t think she was ever going to hear. Imprisoned for life, Carolyn was told she had made parole. In just 14 months.
That she could actually be back home, back to her children, to George, seemed surreal. No more endless sleepless nights, no more humiliating searches just to see her children, no more waiting, waiting, waiting. She could really leave it all behind her like a horrific nightmare and go home. How did she feel about being falsely accused and about Steve? “In the eyes of the law I will always be a convicted felon. I don’t know where Steve is today, and neither do I care to know what ever happened to him.” But one thing she is clear about: “I will never allow anyone else to define who I really am. I will never stop believing in the compassion that lies within me.”
And that compassion flows through every vein in Carolyn’s body now that she’s out of prison.
“While I was in prison, I never understood why some other mothers who were in the same cell with me never had their families come to visit them, while my children always came to visit me. It was only over time I understood the real reasons. And they were sad.”
Carolyn was heartbroken to see that a lot of mothers never got a chance to see their children and speak to them even once, guilty or not. “Every mother deserves to see her child no matter what, to tell them that they love them.” But in most cases, either financial troubles or emotional reasons kept families distanced.
After settling in her new and free life, Carolyn finally came face to face with the reason she had been put through the test of a lifetime. She had experienced and seen firsthand, the pain and suffering of mothers separated from their children while in prison and she was going to do something about it now.
So started her initiative to bring convicted parents reach their children via recorded videos. The motive of her project was straightforward: Healthy parental connections are essential to a child’s development. Children are the silent victims of their parent’s crime through the trauma and loss of the environment that has been their life. When a child’s parent is incarcerated and a healthy connection is maintained, it reduces the child’s risk for social, emotional, and educational problems. For the incarcerated parent, family connection decreases the likelihood of recidivism. Maintaining and enhancing the bond between the child and the incarcerated parent through video messages and other interactive media became the focal points of Carolyn’s dream that was later christened as The Messages Project.
“I know what helplessness is. I know what it feels to not be understood. I know there are those who are guilty but want to make a change, and those that are not guilty but are imprisoned. Children have every right to hear that straight from their parent. Children have to know that their parents love them.”
Carolyn’s ambitious project started off filming 60 mothers at one prison which has now spread across 14 different correctional institutions across the state. It then extended to fathers.
While the world has given up on these convicted parents and their kids, Carolyn is there, with her camera and a large heart, taping these dads reading stories to their children, recording mothers telling their children to be safe and never to tread the same path as them. And then she transfers their messages on to CDs and tapes, and delivers them to their children across the U.S. Carolyn has even made these possible for the hearing impaired with the help of interpreters.
All of Carolyn’s efforts did not come without a fight. “When I started this in 1999, I spoke to the principle of Fluvanna Correctional Center, the center with the maximum security for women. I managed to get clearances to start my project all the way to the top. But then, the Director refused.” Not giving up there, Carolyn credits her tenacity and belief in her project that pushed her to get her work started. "I put in my own money. I did whatever was required,” says Carolyn, finally getting the permission to start work at the Fluvenna correctional centre for women. The project immediately received massive support and press, which in turn prompted authorities at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women to come to her.
Till date, she and her team have recorded more than 10,000 video messages, which are sent to the children along with a book the parent has read to them. The Moms and Dads also write poems, sing songs, pray, and most importantly, send love to their children and families. There are some exceptions, she says, as her project is not open to sex offenders and those with special court orders not to get in touch with children among a few other things.
Carolyn has received over 1,200 e-mails thanking her for her work she has done, and she writes back to each and every one of them. “If someone takes the time to say thank you to me, then I take the time to thank them back,” she says humbly.
If one must understand the difference that Carolyn has made, one only has to read a few of those emails from an offender or their children: “I didn’t think of about my family before. It’s not that I did not love my children. It’s just that I let the bad stuff take over. But I know now, that I need to live for my children.”
“I would not go to bed till mum read me a book, but now I can,” writes a child whose mother is serving time in prison.
Each offender in prison on an average has two children, explains Carolyn. Research shows that the kids of offenders are 6 times more likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system in some way. But the offending parents can make a difference in their child’s life and turn their kids away from the poor choices they once made just by being a parent to them. Carolyn is now providing that link between the two.
“Children are the silent victims of their parent’s mistakes. They need to be taken out of this vicious cycle. If we can change even one child’s life, then our job is done. It is high time we talked about the families of offenders. This is about the children,” Carolyn insists. “These children need to know they are loved, and not hated.”
An imprisoned offender who had not heard from her children for 13 long years is one of Carolyn’s many examples of an angel walking this earth. This offender’s children had hated her all along. Carolyn urged for the mother to speak to her children through a video that she would then send to them. And she did. She begged to be forgiven. She begged for their love, just once.
What followed after the video reached the children was unimaginable. For the first time in 13 years, all walls came crashing down. For the first time her children visited her. For the first time, they spoke and understood each other. For the first time, a family had hope of slowly starting to build their relationship all over again.
It is not too late.
Carolyn LeCroy, we are humbled and grateful for your large heart at forgiving those whom most cannot forgive and for giving hope to the hopeless. You continue to tirelessly build a better world for innocent children after having walked a painful path in your own life.