KIRKWOOD, Mo. — Sometimes inspiration comes disguised. The 'ah-ha' moment for Stephanie Ragagnon of Kirkwood came when she was visiting her incarcerated mother about a dozen years ago.
“When I was in my late twenties, actually about 12 or 13 years ago, my mother was charged and convicted of a crime that she didn't commit,” said Regagnon. “It was through visiting her and meeting kids who would have been just like me. They were only younger. It was through that experience that I realized there were children who were having to forego their own dreams due to the mistakes of their parents or a broken system.”
It's one thing to recognize a problem. It’s quite another for someone who was recently married and had a full-time job to create a non-profit.
“I didn't need another job, but I couldn't put the toothpaste back in the tube. Once I became aware of these issues and met some of these families, I just knew I had to do something,” said Regagnon.
Named after her daughter, Stephanie Regagnon founded Ava’s Grace Scholarship Program in 2010. The non-profit is approaching one million dollars in scholarships.
“Ava’s Grace is a scholarship program for kids who've experienced parental incarceration,” said Regagnon, “but we also have a mentoring component and we really try to create a family atmosphere for our kids.”
Scholarships are as much as $5000 a year and, so far, more than $800,000 has been provided to children of inmates.
“We started out small, but today we're picking classes of eight. And so over those years, we have supported 40 kids and by the end of this year we will have nine graduates who've graduated from undergrad.”
Among the Ava’s Grace scholarship recipients is Washington University law student Deionna Ferguson, whose father was released from prison two years ago. Because of $5000 a year provided by Ava’s Grace, Ferguson is a year away from graduating law school.
“They give you resources to become anything that you want to be, and in my case I wanted to be an attorney,” said Ferguson. “Society often thinks that you are going to go down the same road and so they think that you're going to become incarcerated.”
Also living the dream is Deionna’s twin sister, Dewonna, who is attending medical school at St. Louis University. The twins were the first siblings to receive scholarships from Ava’s Grace.
”It surprised us a lot,” said Ferguson. “I was the first one to receive the call and I was excited and I was telling her and right when I was telling her the same number was calling her phone to tell her she received the scholarship. We want to show others that they can do it and that all you need is someone to be there to support you.”
Defying stereotypes and breaking the cycle of incarceration is one of the ways Ragagnon measures the success of Ava’s Grace.
“I think that we make a mistake when we write off this entire population of kids as foregone conclusions and that they're just going to follow in the footsteps of their parents,” said Ragagnon.