Shawntelle Fisher helps many others on her way to success
Shawntelle Fisher was unsure of what she would hear when she dialed the number of an admissions counselor at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley.
“He said ‘I’m not concerned about where you’ve been, I’m concerned about where you’re going,’” Fisher said. “He’s still my No. 1 supporter. People like him believed in me.”
Where Fisher had been was prison. She’d spent years in and out of incarceration, but the last time she went away for fraud she knew that she was ready to change. During those five and a half years, she turned herself around, started tutoring programs and placed a phone call to the community college the day before her release in November 2011.
“I made a decision that this was it,” Fisher said. “I’ve been on a mission ever since. I love what I do.”
Where Fisher was going was everywhere, and she’s doing it better than most people. Fisher transferred to the University of Missouri–St. Louis after completing her associate degree, and the Pierre Laclede Honors College student will graduate in May with bachelor’s degrees in education and media studies with a minor in social work. She has also established the nonprofit The SoulFisher Ministries, which helps former inmates succeed when they re-enter society and provides after-school tutoring to children in need.
She’s done all of this while maintaining a GPA of at least 3.9, earning numerous academic honors, and earning a full academic scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis to pursue master’s degrees in both social work and divinity.
Fisher has worked hard throughout her college career, but has been especially busy since August 2014. When protests and unrest following the death of Mike Brown delayed the opening of schools in the area. Because many students get their only meals from school, Fisher arranged for her church to serve meals for hungry students.
When school resumed, Fisher started a tutoring program at Ferguson’s Koch Elementary. The school, part of the Riverview Gardens School District, has a high free and reduced-price lunch rate, and many students were affected by what happened following the Mike Brown shooting. The school was a perfect place for her to expand a new phase of SoulFisher, assisting children who come from poverty or have parents who are incarcerated.
“Every time I go to Koch Elementary, it breaks my heart,” Fisher said. “I asked the kids if they were friends outside of tutoring. They said no, they only played at school, because it wasn’t safe to play at home. I feel like every child should be able to go outside and play. There’s so much we take for granted, sitting in our own corner so content while little persons have to worry about getting hit by a bullet or not having enough to eat.”
Despite the school’s high poverty level, the school has improved reading test scores, said principal Howard Fields. Teachers and administrators did not want students to lose their reading momentum over spring break. In anticipation of the break, Fisher organized a book drive so that each student received a book to read during the vacation.
“A lot of students did say when they returned that they had read the book,” said Fields, who is a UMSL alumnus and is working on a doctorate at the university. “More importantly, we’re really trying to increase literacy and the expectation that we are reading all the time. The work that Fisher and UMSL are doing is making an impact and we want to continue focusing on teaching and learning here at Koch Elementary.”
Jeanne Zarucchi, professor of art history and French, also advises the Phi Kappa Phi honor society that Fisher belongs to. Fisher’s energy and success in the face of so many challenges has impressed Zarucchi.
“I was most impressed by her energy and her willingness to put everything she has towards helping other people,” Zarucchi said. “I have seen her do this with making phone calls, physically collecting books, and at the same time stopping to talk to people, connecting with individuals. I also saw her at the school, interacting with teachers and students. The genuine care that she has for these children is evident in everything she says and does.”
In addition to helping children, helping inmates re-enter society is an important cause to Fisher. SoulFisher trains them in basic skills that people who have spent their lives on the outside take as givens, such as how to fill out a job application or set up a checking account. Recently, her organization helped 50 people find jobs.
“We have to teach them how to be normal,” Fisher said. “Normal people don’t carry around their paycheck in cash in their pocket. There are basic things that you’d think they know that they don’t really know.”
Fisher’s other accomplishments include being a member of the University Ambassadors and student marshal for the College of Education’s commencement ceremony.
For more information about The SoulFisher Ministries, visit www.thesoulfisherministries.com.
St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU
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