Vilma Donovan (Fortune Society)
My name is Vilma Ortiz Donovan and I was born in Huntington Station, New York. I stayed in Huntington until I was about sixteen years old, and then I left home for the crazy lifestyle that I got involved in. Back in the early 70’s I got involved in substances and selling; I was in and out of jail, came home and wanted to change my life. I had a very supportive family but there were no resources in Long Island. It was tough because I felt very judged at the time. I’d go on interviews and they wouldn’t go well the minute I said I’d been in prison. I spiraled, and went back to where I was accepted. I wound up getting in trouble again, and did another three years and while I was there I decided that it was REALLY time to change my life. But I knew that change had to come from within and I couldn’t do it alone. So I found the Fortune Society’s academy, Fortune Academy. I read about it in a book and I wrote to them. I was looking for a bed at the Castle. They happened to be looking for a woman to take a bed, so I got my chance! When I first came to the Castle, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I walked in and this feeling of, “Oh my God,” came over me. All my life I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged or what I was supposed to be doing, and when I walked through those doors I exhaled a breath of relief. I knew that it was where I belonged. I stayed there for about eighteen months, I did all the programs, and I started volunteering. Now I’m the receptionist manager at Fortune Society. I’m a co-writer of the play The Castle, which ran off Broadway for about sixteen months, and we traveled a lot with that.
Fortune was a safe place for me at a crucial time in my life. Nobody judged me there, nobody cared what I did, and they just wanted to help me. From the play, we went on to do a documentary film called “Released.” It shows family pictures and for some of us profiled in the play, how our lives have changed. As soon as I was done with everything—twenty years of parole, rehabs, etc.—the first thing I did was take a cruise! I’ve been traveling ever since last year, and I had the opportunity to travel abroad, which is something I always dreamed about. I went to Paris! I went to France and I went to Barcelona! I saved for a year. My dog and me had a lot of ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese for a year, but let me tell you it was worth it. We went to the Eiffel Tower, to the tippy top, and I was just like, “Oh my God. Oh my God.” The year before that I went to Puerto Rico. I just got back last week from a trip across California and Arizona. So now, I’m not playing. I’m living a life that I always imagined, that I never thought I could have.
And then I met Lear. She came to Fortune and asked me to audition. Being with all of these people from so many different organizations brings such an amazing energy! It’s an overwhelming feeling knowing I’m a part of this. This is history. This is history, and as tired as I am when I come here, when I change my clothes, and Lear says, “Okay let’s go,” and the music starts and everybody gets into their place—it’s just so energizing! Right now I’m working on an associates degree. I’m at a 3.85 average. I’m a college student living a life that I always imagined. I also go to a lot of colleges to do motivational speaking for Fortune. Fortune’s been really good to me and I work with an amazing bunch of people that really care. My circle now is no longer made up of street dealers. My circle now is made up of vice presidents and all these people who believe in me. They saw something in me that I didn’t see. I love my life and I’m blessed everyday.