Look At Her Now: Vilma Donovan on Her Years at Fortune

Look At Her Now: Vilma Donovan on Her Years at Fortune


Vilma Donovan holds many titles in the Fortune community – former Castle resident, a successful actor and Executive Assistant to Fortune’s Senior Vice President. She carries each role with pride and continues to give back to the organization she loves.   

Vilma has been performing in the play “The Castle” since 2009. The play holds a place very close to Vilma’s heart, in part because of the building it pays tribute to. Nicknamed the Castle, The Fortune Academy is our emergency and transitional housing facility in West Harlem that provides a safe, rehabilitative community for individuals once incarcerated. Vilma lived in the Castle when she first came to Fortune in 2007. Her time as a resident served as a catalyst for her fifteen-year involvement with the agency.   

Vilma continues to visit the Castle regularly:

“I still go back because that’s my house. As we say, that’s where I grew up.”

In “The Castle” play – a stripped-down performance that moves between four different narratives of formerly incarcerated people – Vilma plays herself. For most, playing yourself might be the scariest role one could ever perform. For Vilma, she does not consider her on-stage honesty about her life to be an act of vulnerability but one of feeling.

“I get asked a lot how I can get on a stage in front of people that I do not even know and just express,” Vilma said. “Before, I never felt anything. Now, I feel everything. And it is happiness. I do it and I feel it because it’s where I was. I stop and say, ‘But look at me now.’”

"And if my story can help anybody, whether it's a male or female or somebody who hasn't been incarcerated, then it's the best gift that I can give someone. It is really special to be able to do that.”

Vilma’s acting began with “The Castle” but continues today. In 2021, she acted in a TV show pilot for a major streaming service, as well as in a star-studded music video and short film. Vilma considers performing to be secondary to her life. Fortune, she insists, is at the center.

“Fortune is my life. There’s no way that, unless they kicked me out of here, I’m leaving,” she said. “It’s [special] to be able to work for a place that helped change my life. I mean, I did the work. But to have a place where you’re not judged or nobody’s looking at you, and they [are] just giving, everybody’s giving and giving, to help you achieve. I did everything here. From living in the Castle to doing treatment services, from doing the employment service class, taking computer classes, everything, everything.” 

Vilma remains in touch with many of the counselors and case managers she forged relationships with as a participant at Fortune. She has a particularly close relationship with Fortune’s founder, David Rothenberg, who directs “The Castle” each year. Her support network and the strategies they have taught her help her manage the less sunny days. 

“I still do have moments,” said Vilma. “It's not all good. I have moments, but I have the tools and I know how to utilize them. I know how to reach out to people...when I need to.”

Vilma recently moved to Harlem. The move represents a full-circle moment for her. While incarcerated, Vilma was part of a work-release program, allowing her to leave her prison during the day and work in Harlem. She would often admire the brownstones on her walks through the neighborhood. 

“We would have to go as a group. I used to look at windows while walking and I would say to the other girls, ‘One day, I’m going to live in a brownstone. You watch it and see.’ So 13 years later, I’m now living in a brownstone in Harlem. Yeah, it’s awesome.” 

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