Teresa Forliti named College of Adult & Professional Studies Alumna of the Year

Breaking Free Executive Director Teresa Forliti CAPS’05 says she “was called to the exact job God wanted.” After overcoming her own time in “the life,” she is helping women break away from systems of exploitation.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

August 07, 2019 | 4:45 p.m.

Teresa Forliti CAPS’05

Along with her work as Breaking Free’s executive director, Teresa Forliti CAPS’05 also gives frequent speeches on exploitation and drug addiction, serves on the board of several other advocacy organizations, and she’s advocated at the Minnesota State Capitol and in Washington, D.C.

Teresa Forliti CAPS'05 never hides from her past. She returns to the neighborhoods where she lived during her time in "the life" to do outreach. She sees many women and men she knew. Most are happy to visit with Forliti, who overcame a life of things like drug abuse and alcoholism. Some even urge Forliti to leave before she's tempted in any way. Often, she senses sadness or shame in the people she visits who are still in "the life," but Forliti hugs them. "I'm no different than you," she tells them. "We love you. Just come when you're ready."

Forliti's own time in "the life" cost her custody of her children, her job, and time—time with her family and children. But she credits her faith and God for putting her where she is today: in a place to help others. "I do believe I was called to the exact job God wanted me to have because of my experiences in ‘the life,'" she says. "And what a great opportunity that is."

Today, Forliti is following God's call to help women and men break free from "the life." For her work as the executive director of the St. Paul nonprofit Breaking Free, Bethel named Forliti its 2019 Alumna of the Year for its College of Adult & Professional Studies.

A "very normal life"

Forliti grew up in the Twin Cities, primarily in West Bloomington, the daughter of an endodontist and a model. An oldest child, Forliti remembers playing tennis, golf, and softball, while also taking frequent ski trips to Colorado. "I had a pretty good life up until I was 15 years old," she says. "Very normal life, very healthy."

But at 15, Forliti's 28-year-old boss at a neighborhood restaurant sexually abused her. Forliti doubted anyone would believe her and told no one, but the incident defined Forliti's perception of herself for years. Soon after, a close friend was struck and killed by a car, and then her parents divorced. Reeling, Forliti turned to cocaine. She tried it and fell in love. "I thought, that is my answer—cocaine," she says.
Forliti continued to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse while working for a large healthcare company. She conceived two children with a man and briefly married him, but the marriage failed and she lost custody of her children. Time in 14 treatment centers largely failed to get her clean, but it introduced her to new drugs and new dealers as her addiction intensified. However, the treatment centers also showed Forliti she wasn't alone—other people were struggling to get clean, too. And a one year stay at Adult & Teen Challenge led her to memorize scripture and learn about having a personal relationship with the Lord.

But after completing Teen Challenge, Forliti broke down and relapsed soon after while thinking about the lost time with her kids. She thought it would be one time, but it was "seven times seven" worse. Full of shame and without telling her family, Forliti started living on the streets. "Without the kids, I didn't want to live," she says. She fell in with a group of pimps from Memphis, Tennessee, who had moved to the Twin Cities. She first became a skilled thief, and fell deeper and deeper into "the life."

But in 2002, she was arrested during a theft attempt. She faced 11 bench warrants in three counties after other drug users had turned her in for reduced sentences. In jail, at 41, Forliti learned she was pregnant. Sitting in her cell, Bible verses she'd memorized at Teen Challenge returned to her, and she recited ones like Jeremiah 29:11, James 1:2, and Psalms 3:5-6. She became excited for the first time in years that her future held promise. She recalls praying, "In the name of Jesus, I just want out."

"Father God, I think there's a chance."

A Chance

Despite walking to the hospital to deliver her baby and not knowing how she'd pay for diapers, Forliti believed things were going to work out. She learned about Breaking Free and moved into housing through the organization. She started raising her baby and remembers waking up excited for Breaking Free group sessions. "I'd look forward to going to group and just having community with these girls," she says.

Forliti started thinking about finishing college. Her family, especially her father's side, was highly educated, and her siblings all finished school. Along with her father's work as a doctor, one uncle was president of a Twin Cities university and other relatives worked in administrative roles at schools. Forliti was accepted into Bethel's Organizational Leadership program. "I could feel the hand of God throughout this whole process," she says.

Though she was afraid she wouldn't measure up, Forliti says her Bethel classmates held her up. They treated her with respect and treated her normally. The classes taught her valuable business and leadership skills, while also challenging her to think outside the box. But more importantly, the program helped Forliti transition out of "the life." "That's kind of what set my life back on track," she says. "Because I was being treated, not like somebody who has three felonies and was homeless anymore."
Teresa Forliti CAPS’05

Despite years of drug addiction and time in “the life,” Teresa Forliti CAPS’05 says she had a normal childhood before hardships set her spiraling into drug addiction. However, she eventually quit drugs, completed Bethel’s Organizational Leadership program, and started working at Breaking Free.

She graduated and moved out of Breaking Free housing, working in real estate with her family until the real estate collapse. After briefly joining Breaking Free's board, Forliti started working at Breaking Free in 2009 and later became its executive director.

Breaking Free

"The bottom line is to keep our women safe," Forliti says of Breaking Free.

Breaking Free provides direct services to help high-risk women escape systems of exploitation. The nonprofit's efforts focus on advocacy, housing, and education. Breaking Free's St. Paul offices feature spaces where women can come in off the streets for short-term relief from life on the streets, and Breaking Free is also trying to open a temporary shelter. Long term, the biggest barrier to getting off the streets is housing. Breaking Free runs three 18-unit apartments with funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We're always at capacity," Forliti says. "Always."

Breaking Free helps women get back in touch with their children. It also teaches women life skills, marketing skills, and business skills through making and selling jewelry. Some women going through the program become public speakers, and Forliti has surpassed 270 speaking engagements. Forliti also serves on the board or assists with several other organizations with the same goal, and she's advocated at the Minnesota State Capitol and in Washington, D.C.

Breaking Free now also operates Men Breaking Free, an effort to train men who have purchased or trafficked women. It also started a 24/7 phone line that men can call if they're feeling tempted by aspects of "the life." Forliti's willingness to work with men through Men Break Free reflects what Forliti calls a key lesson in her life: "Don't judge anyone," she says. "Just don't judge. You have no idea where someone came from, both the men and the women. And the bottom line is they're children of God." She instead aims to keep her eyes open and her mouth shut as she focuses on listening to others' stories. "Our hearts need to be open to receive people no matter where they're at, no matter how hard it is, no matter how frustrating," she says.

But Forliti admits she can't do her job alone. Along with her own past trauma, Forliti often experiences vicarious trauma through her work. She prays for the tools and strength to complete the job. "I need You to provide me with the tools and persistence and compassion to run this organization," she says.


"We never completely heal," Forliti admits.

Today, she no longer craves cocaine, but she admits feeling the urge if she comes across it in her work. "If I would see it or smell it right now, it would be a real tough thing to have to walk away from—and I have," she says. "It's just got that draw. It's just got that pull like heroin does to some people and meth to some people. It's still there. And I always know, if I touch it, it's over. And I think that's really important to know."

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I know it’s not going to be as bad as what I’ve already been through.

— Teresa Forliti, CAPS/GS Alumnus of the Year
If she relapses, she knows it’s "jails, institutions, death."

And no matter how many counseling sessions or how hard she prays, she says her time in "the life" continues to affect her interpersonal relationships and likely always will. She doubts she could have a relationship with a man. "I know that that’s a part of me that’s broken," she says adding many others face similar challenges. But she focuses on raising her daughter.

Often, places or songs trigger memories of her time in "the life." Songs like "Desperado" by The Eagles or songs from Death Row Records, which came out during her time on the streets, elicit a flood of emotions and memories. But Forliti finds solace in Minnesota sports, especially the Twins. She grew up loving the Twins and says it doesn’t take her to negative places. "That gets me out of the trauma," she says. "It’s something to be excited about." She also loves gardening and is building a garden in Breaking Free’s back yard where survivors will put their initials on rocks.

Forliti is striving to simply follow God’s call. She doesn’t know where He’ll lead next, but the uncertainty of tomorrow is comforting to Forliti. "I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I know it’s not going to be as bad as what I’ve already been through," she says.

Nominate the 2020 Alumni of the Year

Every year, Bethel honors three outstanding alumni. If you know an incredible alum who deserves to be recognized, let us know! Nominations are accepted year-round and remain in consideration for three years.

Learn more