A turn for the better

At 17, Dana Wideman-Howard was pregnant with her first of four sons.

Today, at 36, Mrs. Wideman-Howard is a newlywed and holds down a 9-to-5 office job with Goodwill Industries.

It's the years in between, she says, that really tell her story, including 11 spent behind bars at maximum-security Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, S.C.

Things are different now.

In fact, Mrs. Wideman-Howard was recently honored with the Achiever of the Year employee award at Goodwill Industries' Job Connection on Peach Orchard Road, where she works as a job coach.

It's a role she accepts because it provides a chance to share her background while inspiring her clients, who include mentally and physically challenged individuals.

She said she still recalls the day she was released from prison and the challenges she faced. The adjustments to regular life were mind-boggling, she said.

Mrs. Wideman-Howard was incarcerated from May 24, 1994, to April 1,

2005.

"When I got out, it was hard. Everything had changed. The cell phone? I thought it was a calculator. I couldn't even hold it. Now I have two of them," she laughs.

"My nephew told me about the Super Wal-Mart, a place where they had groceries and clothes under the same roof. That was amazing to me," she said.

"Now, I don't drink. No drugs. I've been clean for 13 years," she said.

After first using marijuana as a 14-year-old, she eventually started using harder drugs , she said.

Mrs. Wideman-Howard is also frank when it comes to explaining how she became addicted to crack cocaine and her eventual road to incarceration.

"I was on drugs. I couldn't sit still and was negligent toward my children."

Her negligence turned into a felony charge after her third son, Dezman, died of blunt trauma to the head while under her care.

"They charged me with homicide by child abuse and said I medically neglected to take him to the hospital. I was the mother, so it was something I've had to deal with. I now use those experiences to save other lives," she said.

While she was in prison, Mrs. Wideman-Howard's three living sons were put up for adoption. After returning from prison, she said her biggest fear was that her sons would have ill feelings toward her.

"My children still love and respect me," she said of sons Carlton, 19, Cody, 18, and Denzel, 16.

After leaving prison, another major obstacle she faced was finding and keeping a job .

Her background as a felon did not sit well with potential employers, she said .

Her fortunes changed when a friend referred her to Job Connection at Goodwill's Peach Orchard site, where she landed a minimum-wage job.

"I started out as a receptionist making $5.25 an hour," she said.

After six months of training, Goodwill administrators noticed her commitment and perfect attendance.

"Goodwill gave me a chance when no one else would," she said.

Meredith Vasquez, an area Goodwill administrator, said she knew upon meeting Mrs. Howard that she deserved a second chance .

"She told me God sent her, and her can-do attitude was so special," Ms. Vasquez said. "She's one of the finest job coaches we've ever had at Goodwill."

Jim Stiff, a chief executive officer and president of Goodwill's central Georgia and CSRA regions, said Mrs. Wideman-Howard's Achiever of the Year award is recognized by 166 Goodwill branches nationwide.

"Dana inspires us all with her courage and her triumph over darkness. She's a leading light at Goodwill," he said.

Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or tim.cox@augustachronicle.com.

DANA WIDEMAN-HOWARD

Age: 36

Occupation: Job coach, Goodwill Industries

Background: Former crack addict and prison inmate, now high achiever and top Goodwill employee.

Family: Husband, Tony ; three sons.

Church: Macedonia Baptist Church