Amber Bright didn’t know she loved to learn.
Like others who enrolled in a premier computer coding class at the state-run women’s prison in Topeka, Bright had no prior knowledge of the digital mechanics behind websites and applications.
The course, offered by San Francisco-based The Last Mile, teaches a variety of computer coding languages, teamwork and problem-solving skills.
Bright, an Independence native, and 11 other members of the inaugural class graduated Friday in a celebration of the budding developers they have become.
"There were just so many little successes," Bright said. "Even though it was challenging, it was very rewarding. It built my confidence in myself, not just in my coding skills but in all aspects of my life. It just built me up and gave me a sense of hope that I didn't have before."
Representatives of The Last Mile joined corrections officials and industry recruiters at the Topeka Correctional Facility to congratulate the women on their accomplishments.
The prison plans to open a development shop to hire five of the graduates for corrections projects, such as an overhaul of the agency’s website. Some of the graduates will become tutors for an incoming class of students.
Koch Industries representatives were there to interview several women who soon will be released from prison.
"They'll be making more money than a lot of people in this room, to be honest," said Brett Young, classroom instructor for the coding program. "Give them a couple of years under their belt. I want to hear back and have them tell me they're making more money than me."
More than 60 women signed up for the initial class. The application included an essay and logic test. Officials interviewed 30 finalists before selecting students.
Each day, the women studied code and applied their skills toward long-term projects.
Back in San Francisco, staff at The Last Mile would broadcast video every week to connect students in Topeka with employees at tech giants, leveraging the organization’s connections within Silicon Valley.
"We teach a lot of hard skills — programming, mathematical logic and things like that — but we also teach an approach to knowing something that you don't know, and just the methodology and ideology of how do I approach this abstract concept," said Sydney Heller, director of programs at The Last Mile.
Megan Asebedo, of Garden City, developed a "Jeopardy"-style trivia game and built a platform to order dishes from a restaurant.
The mother of three young children planned to "show off my stuff" in a meeting with Koch recruiters. She looks forward to using her new skills to provide financial stability for her family when she is released later this year.
"I love them to the moon and back, forever and always," Asebedo said. "They're the light of my life, and I can't wait to spend the rest of my life with them."
Suzanne Hayden, of Olathe, built a credit management website with tools for obtaining a positive credit score. The site included a budget calculator to assess your debt ratio and guide changes in financial habits. She also built a program for loan applications.
Another of her websites offered Suzie’s Edibles, where arrangements of fruit look like flowers.
Hayden’s three children attended the inspirational graduation ceremony.
"It feels wonderful," Hayden said. "Coming in here, especially when they were so young, it really made me feel like I had failed them as a parent and as a mother because I wasn't there. I've been gone eight years now, so I've missed a lot.
"Being able to show them, even though I made a mistake that brought me here, there are still things I can do with my life to make me important. And to be proud of me. When I come home, I'm going to be in a position where I can support us as a family, and we won't have to rely on people, and we won't have to scrounge around."
Bright, a mother of children who are 21, 18 and 9, wanted them to know, "no matter what you've been through and no matter how things seem, if you work hard and you set goals, and you work toward them and are persistent in that, it will pay off, and the possibilities in your future will be limitless."
Topeka Correctional Facility warden Gloria Geither applauded the women in the graduating class for choosing to change their futures and not be defined by their past.
"I hope today you are filled with hope — hope for what your future holds, hope for the potential you have and hope for what you can do for your family, your friends and your community with the skills, knowledge and opportunity you have gained from this program," Geither said.
Tiplance Walker, who delivered a commence address on behalf of the class, said it is easy to lose hope when incarcerated. You lose your name, identity, community and voice, she said.
"This was the first real opportunity presented to me following one of the greatest failures of my life, and it is a real challenge finding hope in the dark," Walker said. "There lies a fear of failure, fear of the future, and the most insidious fear of all, the fear of not ever being enough. So I had the desire for success, but I had no realistic idea on how to get there."
The coding class offered hope, Walker said, and "hope is a life-giving force."