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“Shame thrives in secrecy. Having such a public healing and a public acceptance has really helped me.”

By Catherine Hoke

I know what makes me feel alive. Without a doubt, I know why I’ve been put on this earth. I know my calling.

In my early twenties, I was a technology investor for a venture capital firm. Then I worked for a large private equity firm in New York City.

I was invited on a prison visit in Texas. There, I realized for the first time that many former drug dealers and gang leaders have a lot in common with successful executives in corporate America. Drug rings and gangs are run by boards of directors. They have management teams and accountants and bookkeepers. They’re for-profit organizations.

So I asked myself, “What would happen if these guys were equipped to go legit with their skills?” And it consumed me to the point where making another deal or making more money was of no interest to me. I ended up jumping ship from my very fancy New York private equity job to move to Texas and found PEP, a nonprofit that provides entrepreneurial training to Texas prison populations.

I had $50,000 in my savings account. I cashed it all out. When I had no more resources, I became a professional beggar. We raised more than $200,000 in our first year. Our graduates were getting out of prison and they were becoming entrepreneurs and employees. It was just amazing to watch them win.

Then, in 2008, my husband of nine years suddenly presented me with divorce papers. I had been in a very Christian community in Texas where people say things like “God hates divorce” and “Divorce is sin.” So when I was served divorce papers, it left me at a loss.

I felt so covered in the thickest wall of shame.

I ended up making decisions that I have regretted to this day. I had some relationships with people who had gotten out of the Texas prison system. They were the graduates of my program. What I did was not illegal, but I knew that it was a bad decision. I was forced to resign from PEP.

I went through a very deep depression after my resignation. I felt so covered in the thickest wall of shame. I thought I was a disgusting human being. I couldn’t believe myself. I couldn’t believe that I had put my organization in such jeopardy. And I tried to take my life.

There was a small group of people who loved me back to life. When we’re drowning in depression, it can lead to a lot of waste. I believe that all of us have so much potential, but it takes surrounding ourselves with other people who believe that. Because a lot of times, we can’t see that for ourselves.

Today, I lead Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that prepares prisoners for reintegration into society. As part of the program, I share my own story as inspiration.

Shame thrives in secrecy. Having such a public healing and a public acceptance has really helped me. I regret the mistakes that I made, but I don’t feel ashamed.

When I am compassionate toward myself, I feel that much more equipped to charge into the world to serve other people. It provides me with that much more strength and courage and energy to live out my purpose.

Divorce & Family Challenges Prison Nonprofit Acceptance