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Fortune Society director brings her work to Queens

More than 20 years after she was released from prison where she served 2 1/2 years on drug charges, Lopez is now the director of a city program that serves recently released inmates.Lopez, 52, who was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in Elmhurst since the early 1980s, said she was arrested in 1984 after she and her then-boyfriend were caught with four kilos of cocaine while selling drugs to an undercover police officer."I got involved with people who were selling big amounts of drugs," she said. "I was making lots of money. The more I got, the more I wanted. In prison, I met so many people who were addicts or were suffering from drugs. I thought, 'My God, what was I involved in?' "Lopez spent 2 1/2 years in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County and in 1987 entered into a work release program in which she cared for children whose parents visited inmates at the prison as well as working in self-help, job training and resume writing programs.In 1989, she was hired as an administrative assistant at the Manhattan-based Fortune Society, a national prisoner re-entry agency. Lopez worked her way up to a counselor position at the agency and five years ago took over as director of counseling and services at the society.She said her duties at the society include seeing an estimated 15 clients to 25 clients per day and placing them with counselors, most of whom were formerly incarcerated, at the society who can best meet their needs. The center's clients range from teenagers to senior citizens who have been in prison for a variety of crimes, from jumping subway turnstiles and disorderly conduct to robbery, assault and murder.She said a majority of clients at the center are looking for jobs, housing, benefits or food."I really like making a difference in people's lives," she said. "Every day I know I've touched somebody, whether it's helping them find a job, helping them get back into society, helping find direction or giving them hope. I know that it can be a struggle finding acceptance and getting people to not slam the door on you."Lopez said the Fortune Society will soon be a quicker commute for her when it moves its operations from 53 West 23rd St. in Manhattan to 29-76 Northern Blvd. in Long Island City in early March. She said the society's success rate among clients is an estimated 80 percent.Lopez said the combination of her prison sentence and work at the society acted as a wake-up call and that she has never broken the law since being released from prison in the late 1980s.She said that she talks frankly with her 16-year-old daughter about her past to inspire her to lead a positive life."I tell her about my experiences and try to lead by example," she said. "I tell her how hard and difficult life can be and how you can easily get lost out there."Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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