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Payback
Alejandra went to jail for a terrible decision. Now she helps others find their way.

By Alejandra

Way too much going on. I was in a folkloric dance troupe, working at Rite Aide, and manning a health hotline. I thought lots of extra curriculars would get me into a good law school. But my grades started to suffer. I was put on academic probation, and my financial aid was suspended. I wasn't able to ask for help. I wanted to fix my problems, secretly, without disappointing anybody.

So I robbed a bank.

I still ask myself how I got the idea. I was desperate. I thought, no one will know. I'll never speak of it. It will be just one time and I'll just move forward.

I walked in and gave the teller a note. Some of what you see in the movies is true. Tellers are supposed to acquiesce to whatever you ask. I got a few thousand dollars, and it all went to pay for school.

I thought "Let me just try this one more time, so I can pay off a little more debt." It didn't work. A judge sentenced me to 30 months in prison. I put on a brave face but I was frightened.

When I got out, I was assigned to a halfway house near Lake Merritt. I loved walking around the lake and just looking at people. It made me feel normal again.

One day I saw a guy from the halfway house wearing a polo shirt that said "Healthy Oakland." He said the place helps people get back on their feet, get health insurance, see a doctor or find a place to live. I started volunteering there. After a month, they offered me a job.

I help whoever comes in. Some are homeless. Others are just out of prison. I tell them I was there too. They always say "You don't look like you were in prison." I say "You don't either." We're seeing more professionals now who can't afford health insurance. And lots of long-term unemployed. Our waiting area is always full.

Most of the day I sit down with folks. I listen to what's going on with them and try to help. It's an unbelievable privilege: to have someone trust me enough to say they need help, the kind of help I once needed, but couldn't ask for.

With a Perspective, I'm Alejandra.

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