Yesenia Lopez was in and out of the prison system since she was 12 years old. She dropped out of high school her freshman year, got pregnant at 14, and was addicted to drugs for 23 years. At the age of 17, she met an older gentleman who promised to protect her. He was a pimp, and trafficked Lopez on the Las Vegas streets.
Given her background, it’s hard to blame Lopez for the trouble she faced. She was a victim of sexual abuse whose father, an immigrant from Cuba, sold drugs.
“I was used to seeing a room full of kilos of cocaine,” Lopez told Independent Women’s Forum. “On my dad’s side, everybody was involved in criminal activity.”
When Lopez was 7-years-old, her father was sentenced to prison. When visiting him, Lopez recalls her father teaching her two things: How to write in Spanish, and to never talk to the police.
“He told me that the lowest thing in life that I could be is a rat, or known as a snitch,” Lopez said. After that, it was instilled in her to never associate with or trust the police. “They’re not there to help,” she said.
Over the next 15 years, Lopez had “many encounters with police officers.” When they would try to help, she pushed them away.
But now at 43-years-old, Lopez looks back on her many interactions with law enforcement and calls efforts to defund the police “insanity.”
“It’s absolutely nuts,” she said. “I’m completely against that.”
Lopez was arrested for the last time on August 15, 2012. “I was homeless and I was hungry and I was tired and I weighed maybe 85 to 90 pounds,” she said. “If you would have seen me,” she added, “you probably would be like, ‘Wow, there is no salvation for her.’”
Instead of serving a few months in prison as she did in the past, this time Lopez chose to enter the WIN Court, short for Women in Need of Change. The WIN Court provides opportunity for chronic female offenders who’ve experienced past traumas to enter into a 18-month to 24-month program in exchange for suspended jail time. During this time, participants must stay out of trouble and participate in a range of recovery and skills training programs.
The program was a huge success, and helped Lopez turn around her life. But because of her record, Lopez still struggled to find a job. That’s when another program stepped in to help: Hope for Prisoners.
Between the two programs, Lopez said she was surrounded with “a multitude of counsel,” including police officers, judges and attorneys within the judicial system. Thanks to their mentorship and support, Lopez was able to obtain a college degree and become a certified alcohol and drug counselor.
Next week, Lopez will graduate with her masters degree from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She’ll be qualified to apply for a license in clinical professional counseling, where she’ll work as a mental health therapist.
Looking at her today, you’d have no idea Lopez lived such a troubled past. She doesn’t like talking about her past because “it’s always like reliving it,” she said, and “is not who I am today.” But when her story is being used for a greater good, Lopez is willing to share.
Lopez understands the negative attitudes towards law enforcement being expressed throughout the country. After all, her father taught her to think the same way. But now as an adult who uses her experience and knowledge to help others get their second chance, Lopez has come to understand that the vast majority of those who choose to serve in law enforcement are a force for good.
“The people that I assumed looked down on me, it was the opposite,” she said. “What they wanted to do was help me to change.”
Judging them based on “one incident of one person,” she said, is unfair.
“The reality is that the majority are here and their hearts are in protecting and serving our community,” she said. “There’s officers here that really care about our community and protecting our community.”
Had those officers not been there to protect her when she was addicted, homeless and being sold for sex on the streets, Lopez said she might not be here today.
“You know how many times I had been arrested? Who knows,” she said. “When you’re out there on drugs and you’re a woman and you get in cars with unknown people, things happen. I had almost been killed a couple of times, and I’m sure a lot of those times that I was arrested saved my life,” she said. “I firmly believe that, I really do.”
In addition to saving her life and opening the door for her to pursue a career that gives her life meaning and purpose, Lopez credits the village that saved her for enabling her to rebuild relationships with her three children, Shanelle, Lisette, and Giovanni, who she had throughout her addiction.
Shanelle, now 28, has two boys of her own with a third on the way.
“The beautiful thing is, my grandchildren don’t have to know my past,” Lopez said. “They just know, ‘My Yaya, who spoils me, and who’s a counselor and helps people.’”