Before her release from prison after serving two years for a non-violent crime, Stephanie Reis, 25, was full of despair and worry, wondering how she would support herself and her 2-year-old son, Major, once she returned to her New York City community.
Then one afternoon, Reis was introduced to an “angel”: Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, a vibrant Catholic nun who is the founder of Hour Children, a non-profit in Long Island City, N.Y., that provides housing, mentoring and job-training for mothers recently released from incarceration.
Fitzgerald arranged for Reis and her son to move into one of the charity’s three apartment buildings, then helped the single mom to enroll in college.
“Sister Tesa’s love made the difference in my life, as I know it did and does for many,” Reis tells PEOPLE. “There’s been no more stumbling through darkness to figure out which turn is right. Instead, a hand is extended and you’re embraced the entire way. I’m extremely grateful.”
Since 1986, Sister Tesa, as she is called, has helped several thousand women (about 200 a year) to rebuild their lives through Hour Children, a program she named to signify the hour of a mother’s arrest, the hour allowed for prison visits with her children and the hour of hope, when she is released.
“Initially, it was called ‘My Mother’s House,’ ” she tells PEOPLE, “and we’d bring the children to visit their mothers in prison every week. But it was evident that the mothers needed a place to come home to. So Hour Children was born.”
Now 71, Sister Tesa, a former educator who grew up poor on Long Island, spends a lot of time at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, helping women to build nurturing relationships with their children when they visit and encouraging them to take parenting classes and get job training.
Whether a mother is doing time for murder or for forging checks, “everybody’s story is sacred and I’m humbled by what I see every day,” she says. “When they come into our program, I don’t give time limits because every person is different. You have to honor the rhythm of their lives.”
“Once these women are living under the same roof, they look out for each and become the family they never had,” she adds. “Everybody cheers for each other’s success. It’s a joy to see that happen.”
Funded primarily through donations and sales from two Hour Store thrift shops, Hour Children also runs a food pantry and will soon be opening a teen center.
“Our guiding principle is that children who grow up with their moms have a better chance of becoming successful adults,” Sister Tesa tells PEOPLE. “We’re all about second chances. More than anything, we want these women and their children to have dignity and hope.”
With a recidivism rate of 3 percent (versus the New York state average of 40 percent), “Hour Children is at the forefront of not only providing innovative, heart-filled services, but also of raising awareness and advocating for policy changes to benefit children whose mothers are incarcerated,” says Tanya Krupat, director of The Osborn Association’s New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents.
“When a need arises, whether it be a home, clothing, healthy food and a job for a mom or a teenager, Sister Tesa always finds a way to address it,” she tells PEOPLE.
For Kellie Phelan, who now runs Hour Children’s mentoring program, Sister Tesa was the difference between returning to a life of crime and building a positive future for herself and her 9-year-old daughter, Savannah, who was born while Phelan was incarcerated on Rikers Island for possession of drugs.
“She’s the reason I’m still standing,” says Phelan, 42, who came to Hour Children from prison in 2007. “Her love and guidance have brought me through the darkest moments of life and shown me the brightest light of all. I’m forever thankful for a second chance with my daughter and life.”
The feeling is mutual, says Sister Tesa, who keeps photographs of all of the children she’s helped on the walls in her office.
“I’ve known these kids for years and remember most of their names,” she tells PEOPLE. “They’ve grown up with us. I’ve watched them graduate from high school and college. That’s what is so rewarding to me — to see the success stories and know that a new generation has found happiness in life.”