CLAREMORE — Twenty years ago, Rhonda Bear was probably not someone with whom many people wanted to be associated. She was an addict, wanted in four counties and on her way to prison.
But Thursday, about half the town of Claremore seemed to be crammed into a tiny coffee shop on Will Rogers Boulevard, cheering for Rhonda Bear, crying for joy and wanting to shake her hand.
Even the governor of Oklahoma was there.
“Three cheers for Rhonda!” shouted Debbie Davis, a friend and colleague of Bear’s.
And there were three very loud cheers.
“You did it!” shouted someone else.
“We did it,” said Bear. “It’s a ‘we.’ ”
Moments later, Gov. Kevin Stitt and a small entourage arrived at She Brews, the coffee shop Bear started seven years ago in support of her mission to help women in recovery. Following a few preliminaries, Stitt signed the executive order that had brought everyone there.
He officially pardoned Rhonda Bear from the long ago drug offenses that sent her to prison.
“Each and every one of you in this room is a testament to her and what she means to her community, to her neighbors and to the state of Oklahoma,” Stitt said.
“Her story exemplifies the need for second chances,” he continued. “Seventeen years ago, Rhonda left her past behind. She says prison saved her life, but also it was the mentorship and the community and the folks that came around her and her faith in Christ that has moved her forward.”
Stitt says meeting Bear during last year’s campaign convinced him that criminal justice reform is a worthwhile undertaking.
That meeting may not have led directly to this week’s historic commutation of sentences for more than 500 convictions, but it clearly contributed.
“He didn’t take notes during the conversation, so I didn’t know how well it was going,” Bear said, recalling their first discussion. “But he remembered. He remembered everything that was said.”
State Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, said Bear earned the city’s respect by doing what she said she would do.
“Rhonda kept on that hard path, and then she started producing evidence that what she was doing was working,” Quinn said.
Since her release from prison in 2002, Bear has worked not only to maintain her own sobriety but to help other women make the transition from incarceration to self-sufficiency.
She is director of the Stand in the Gap Ministries Women in Transition program and founder of two coffeehouses and 13 transitional living homes.
Debbie Davis is one of those Bear has helped.
Davis said Bear’s efforts have been largely successful “because she puts faith first. But there has to be community support, too, and (criminal justice reform) is not going to succeed if the governor is not supporting it.
“When you’re incarcerated, you know you broke the law. But we’re people with feelings, too.”