Maria Morris hates being branded “felon.” Just hearing the word stings. Makes her want to cry.
“It carries a lot of weight, especially with a charge like mine. It carries guilt and shame,” Morris says as she fights back tears. “I’m just happy that I’m here today, and there are people that don’t see me that way and empower me not to see myself that way. Because I’m not my case.”
In January 2018, Morris’ house caught fire. She escaped through a window, but her 21-month-old daughter died that night. Morris was convicted of child neglect after testing positive for methamphetamines in wake of the accident.
When she walked out of David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in August after serving nearly a year, Morris was uncertain about her future. She had been adjudicated to Just the Beginning, a local nonprofit that helps women in similar situations.
Even with their help she didn’t believe she’d ever work a meaningful job. She finally built up the nerve to apply for one and checked the box about being a felon and never heard another word. Just as she suspected.
Just the Beginning referred her to Mental Health Association Oklahoma for a transitional work program position in its leasing department. While in that role Morris decided to participate in the nonprofit’s chili cook-off and won. That’s when Clara Correa, who oversees MHAO’s new employment program CoffeeFirst, learned about Morris’ background.
Morris had previously studied in Tulsa Tech’s culinary program. She won first place in a state competition and went to nationals. She was a student of the year. She was on her way. Then she wasn’t.
Correa told Morris about the new barista employment program that provides transferable job skills and temporary work opportunities for adults who have experienced mental illness, homelessness and/or incarceration. A person can work in the program for up to six months.
On Dec. 3, Morris served the first of many cups of Topeca Coffee when MHAO officials celebrated CoffeeFirst’s grand opening inside the lobby of the Legacy Plaza conference center, 5330 E. 31st St.
“I’ve just been taking leaps and bounds since I’ve been out, and I’ve just been looking at this as my second chance,” says the 27-year-old. “I’m not gonna waste it. I’m a real person with dreams and hopes and abilities, who can contribute back to the community.”
And what are those dreams?
“I want to open a bakery, and I want to open a gourmet restaurant,” Morris says. “I’d like to name it after my daughter, Cara Belle.”