Light a Fire 2022: Keeping Us Healthy

WomenFirst Tells People They’re Worth Loving

The Gresham-based nonprofit matches people coming out of the criminal justice system with mentors who know what they’re going through.

By Margaret Seiler December 29, 2022

Image: Kaitlin Brito

When Shannon Olive was 7, her father died, and his heart was transplanted into another man’s body, a man who got to live a fuller life thanks to this gift. As founder and president of WomenFirst Transition & Referral Center, Olive herself is giving a similar gift (metaphorically, at least) over and over, to women who are transitioning from prison. Her organization has a particular focus on Black women, and those who are recovering from addiction and trauma. The goal: for people who have been through so much to learn to love themselves again. 

WomenFirst—which provides housing, job connections, peer recovery mentors, and more—started work in 2017. But for Olive, it was seeded more than a decade before, when she says God revealed a vision to her while she was sleeping in a Clark County jail bed, following experiences dealing with the foster care system, gangs, homelessness, prostitution, selling drugs, having a baby at 16 and losing custody of him, and, she says, “hanging out with different people that really didn’t care for me.” The path wasn’t direct: Olive went back to school, worked for nonprofits, and became certified as a peer support recovery mentor before launching WomenFirst. The organization’s reintegration program starts working with people six months before their release, and guarantees they’ll have a place to live for up to two years after.

Like Olive, most of WomenFirst’s tiny staff draw on lived experience to connect with those they serve. “You’ve been down that road,” she says. “When you have a person that’s full of just degrees it’s not the same as sitting across from somebody that has a lived experience, because you don’t know ... when you relapse and you go back on the streets and you go back out on using drugs, what are the words of encouragement? What does that feel like?”

“Shannon’s superpower is that she helps people learn how to love themselves. And that can sound kind of trite or corny,” says Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, a statewide advocacy group for the implementation of the 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized some drug possession to open up more health services to people with substance use disorders. “But when you’re talking about people who have survived by being hard—and Shannon has shown them and brought them through a process that really allows them to find their vulnerability and their authentic selves and be able to actually love themselves—the power that can come from that is so monumental and transformational.”

Portland Monthly solicits nominations for the Light a Fire awards, our annual nonprofit honors, every summer and makes selections with the help of a panel of volunteer advisers from the local nonprofit community.  


Related Content

Light a Fire 2022: Giving Shelter

Bridges to Change Offers a Pathway to Recovery

12/29/2022 By Isabel Lemus Kristensen

Light a Fire 2022: Lifetime Achievement

Civil Rights Advocate Valerie Whittlesey Is Someone Who Says Yes

12/30/2022 By Fiona McCann

Light a Fire 2022: Extraordinary Executive Director

At Path Home, Brandi Tuck Is Anything but Shy

12/30/2022 By Conner Reed