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Former felon helps inmates go straight

Lisa Thomas willingly talks about some of her worst experiences—the years she turned to a bottle, crack pipe and men to find what was missing in her life.

Instead of hiding the fact she’s a felon, she points out that she once stood on a street corner and sold her body for drug money.

The 54-year-old wants to show others who are on the path she traveled in the past that they can create a better future for themselves.

“You gotta remember where you came from so you can help other people,” she said.

Thomas’ quest to help male and female prisoners in facilities across Virginia recently earned her acclaim in the governor’s mansion.

Last month, she was one of four groups or individuals honored by Virginia’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell, for efforts to improve their communities.

“Her work is well-known through the Southeast and the United States,” McDonnell said in an email. “Lisa’s stirring first-hand account of survival from years of addiction and her time served for a felony conviction has served as inspiration for all who believe in second chances.”

Thomas lives in Spotsylvania County with her husband, Tom, and two teenage children. She’s been clean since age 30, when Tom, then her boyfriend, picked her up from a crack house after she had a relapse.

She still gets teary-eyed when she recalls what he said that day: “Why do you keep doing this to yourself? You have so much to offer, why do you keep poisoning yourself?”

With his support, as well as her faith and the 12-step program, she quit the bad habits, but eventually found herself drawn to those who hadn’t.

In 2004, Thomas founded New Vision in Fredericksburg, a ministry that helped 4,000 women and children get back on their feet after the women were released from jail. The program closed in 2009 because of lack of funding, but Thomas didn’t quit her association with inmates.

She currently works as a speaker for the Virginia Department of Corrections, visiting facilities across the state to tell offenders they can turn their lives around, just as she did.

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” she said firmly. “It can be done, it just takes a lot of perseverance and dedication.”

The homepage of her website,, is titled “From the Crack House to the State House.” It references the way she overcame her addiction to crack cocaine and eventually worked on measures, at the Virginia General Assembly, to help other nonviolent offenders.

In 2005, Del. Bill Howell appointed her to a legislative committee on prisoner re-entry, and several of the group’s proposals were voted into law.

After New Vision closed, Thomas hosted an Internet radio talk show and wrote a book about addiction myths called “This Is Your Life, Not a Dress Rehearsal.”

She’s currently working on a second book. When she’s not visiting prisons as an official speaker, she leads her church’s ministry at the Rappahannock Regional Jail.

“When I come out of there, I feel so fulfilled because I know that I’ve given somebody hope,” she said. “I have a purpose in life.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425