Re-entry program turns out its first graduates
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Edward Walker spent many nights lonely and in tears, wondering if there was any hope for him as he lay in a prison cell. For almost 20 years of his life, the scenario has played out at different times.
He’d gotten to a point of feeling mental and physical anguish, Walker said.
“There was nobody there when you cry at night,” he said. “Nobody’s there when you need somebody to talk to.”
Walker shared the story this past Thursday morning in front of an audience that came to celebrate the grand opening of Ready4Work, a Bethel Missionary Baptist Church program that’s intended to reduce recidivism. Walker will graduate this week as one of the first participants in the program.
“They believe in me,” he said with a wide smile. “They never gave up on me. That’s the good thing about this program; you have people who care about you and they know when you stumble to pick you up and move on. I greatly appreciate that.”
The audience that listened to Walker included several elected officials, coordinators of the program and Rev. R.B. Holmes, Bethel’s pastor. It was Holmes’ initiative that led to the program being in Tallahassee.
The program is a second-chance opportunity for ex-felons to begin rebuilding their lives. Participants go through counseling and have to pass at least three drug tests, one of them random, as part of the process of successfully completing the program during six weeks.
Those who make it through, are set up with employment and housing if needed.
The program started Nov. 7, with the grand opening taking place Thursday. While it has seven current participants, Lucretia Shaw Collins, director of the program, said up to 65 could seek assistance.
Finding jobs for participants in the program will be a primary focus, Shaw Collins said. Sue Dick, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, used Thursday’s platform to make an appeal to area businesses.
“The job opportunities we hope to see and expect to see provide dignity and means of support and a larger workforce for our community,” she said. “I encourage our business owners to become involved and support this initiative.”
Sheriff-elect Walt McNeil, said the program will help people who saw “no future in front of them” coming out of incarceration. He also promised that his agency will support the program.
“If we don’t step in and try to do something on the front end of that process our crime rate is going to continue to go out of control, much like we’ve experienced over the last five years; continued increase in crime,” said McNeil, who serves on the Ready4Workboard. “I stand with Rev. Holmes. I stand with the staff of the empowerment staff of the Ready4WorkBethel initiative.
“We are going to do everything we can to stop that from the prison, to our community, back into the Leon County Jail, back to prison process. That starts with every one of us being in involved.”
Tampa senator Darryl Rouson and Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum shared inspiring testimonies to demonstrate the need of Ready 4 Work. Both pushed to get government financial support for the program.
Bethel’s congregation also raised $40,000 to assist the re-entry program, Holmes said.
Rouson praised projects like Ready 4 Work, saying that he’s gotten plenty of help from DISC Village in coping with a drug and alcohol addiction. Gillum used the story of three of his six siblings to illustrate the need for the program.
While they turned their lives around on their own, Gillum said, Ready4Workwill be a huge help for ex-felons who might feel hopeless.
“It’s programs like this that will stand in the gap and make a way for so many people who won’t have a way otherwise,” he said.
Like Walker, Rebecca Burke will soon complete the program. Burke, who is on probation for food stamp fraud, said she had concerns about being judged, but the program has given her a sense of optimism.
“The hope that I have is just the fact that I can confidently go into a workplace and apply for a job,” she said. “I hope that people will look at me differently. This program has given me a confidence that I shouldn’t let my circumstances define who I am.”