40under40: Lewis turns experience into action

11/03/2016 - 15:37

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Jade Lewis’s program to help female offenders gain employment, overcome stigma and resist temptation is now being expanded into a social enterprise.

COMMITTED VOICE: Jade Lewis has used her experience as a reformed drug addict to help teach school children to avoid drugs and help female offenders rebuild their lives. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Jade Lewis’s program to help female offenders gain employment, overcome stigma and resist temptation is now being expanded into a social enterprise.  Her achievements saw her named a 40under40 winner in 2016 and a finalist for the First Amongst Equals Award.

Jade Lewis used to identify as a promising young athlete, but when she fell in with the wrong crowd at school and experimenting with drugs turned into addiction, she could no longer recognise her own value and felt powerless to turn her life around.

After several failed stints in rehabilitation centres, during which Ms Lewis now admits she wasn’t ready to make changes, some tough love from her family and an extended stay in a rehab started her on a new path.

“I was so amazed at the amount of people that had the skills and expertise, but more than anything they gave me the time and they had the belief in me that I could do it,” Ms Lewis told Business News.

Ms Lewis said the support she received, and a promise she made to herself that if she ever got her life back together she wanted to help others do the same, has motivated her ever since to extend similar assistance to those in need.

The not-for-profit organisation she founded in 2010, Jade Lewis & Friends, has raised more than $1 million; with that funding, Ms Lewis and her staff and volunteers have run drug prevention programs for more than 150,000 school students and set up several programs for women in prison to help them rebuild their lives.

Ms Lewis runs her mentoring program for female inmates at a lean $200,000 per annum, while it costs $1.4 million annually to keep the 14 women currently involved in the program in jail.

She is now setting up a social enterprise that will provide paid employment, education, volunteering opportunities and financial support for female ex-offenders to help them escape lives of crime or welfare and drug dependence, as well as create an income stream to ensure the financial future of her NFP.

Ms Lewis said an important part of her journey had involved cementing an identity for herself that didn’t involve what she did, but rather who she was as a person; this had allowed her to help other women when they were feeling desperate and unworthy.

“I find it really energising,” she said.

“I can relate to them and know sometimes these women find it hard to put words to what they’re feeling, but if we can help them do that in a safe place, half the battle’s won.”

Ms Lewis has faced several obstacles in making her organisation sustainable. There have been funding challenges, issues with leadership and training, and concerns for her personal safety – yet she has been able to improve the business and maintain her passion.

“Unfortunately drugs, crime and violence have become everyone’s business,” she said.

“I think we live in a world where, directly or indirectly, we’re all affected by this. It’s become a real issue in our community and I think gone are the days when we can pretend it’s not happening. It’s in our face every day in the news, through conversations, when we’re walking down the street. I have three children and my motivation among other things is that we have to make a better world for our children.”

Ms Lewis has also won the St Vincent de Paul Society WA sponsored Community/NFP award.

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