by Jodi Hansen
GOOD DAYS Last Friday was one of those fabulous late summer days in the Willamette Valley that beckons all of us to get out of the office. Luckily, for the VISTA’s and me, we had an important meeting offsite—at a winery!
Our meeting was with Erich Berg who works for Day Wines but is getting ready to launch his own label—Ricochet. This English teacher turned winemaker reached out to me a couple of weeks ago via the Remnant Initiatives website to share about his new label and how Ricochet is about social justice and redemption by giving 5% of profits to causes that help people “bounce back” from the adversities of life.
He shared some fabulous wine with us while we all discussed mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, The Scarlet Letter (did I mention he is an ex-English teacher?), and the importance of our local communities investing in the success of our neighbors trying to “bounce back” after paying their debt to society. It was such a fun and energizing afternoon as we all dreamed of a world where every human being is valued for their potential to contribute to the whole—a world where people would not be labeled with “the scarlet letter” of having a criminal conviction.
BAD DAYS Earlier that week, I had been walking in my neighborhood when I stopped to snap a quick picture of one of those encouraging yard-signs we see all over Newberg. In 2017, Amy Wolff decided to do something in response to the suicide rates in our community when she and her young family set out to place just 20 of these signs in yards around town. Little did she know that this 20-yard project would launch a global movement of encouragement!
But, on this particular day, I wasn’t feeling very encouraged as I took my phone out of my pocket to grab a quick pic of a simple sign that boldly stated, YOUR MISTAKES DO NOT DEFINE YOU. “Oh, Amy,” I sighed to myself, “if only this were true for people with criminal records.”
The bad days are the ones when I am overwhelmed with frustration from witnessing our neighbors-in-transition (NIT’s) face obstacle after obstacle after obstacle as they do their best to meet the most basic of human needs. Obtaining essentials like a stable place to live, gainful employment, and healthcare are especially challenging when one has a criminal record. Juggling court mandated appointments makes finding and keeping stable work very difficult. Heck, just getting to appointments or work, with the limited bus service that our rural communities provide, is a job in and of itself!
Our housing crisis is the hardest on those with criminal records. One of our NIT’s lost hundreds of dollars in non-refundable application fees to landlords who said they would not hold his criminal record against him, but then denied him an apartment after the background check was done. (The greedy always seem to prey on the desperate.)
Another NIT is working full-time and living in an old RV, which he has to move every night to comply with city codes, as he looks for a stable apartment, “It’s so discouraging Jodi, I have worked so hard these past nine months. I am staying sober and out of trouble. We have the money to get a place, but no one will rent to us.”
I guess the truth is that some mistakes really do define some of us.
THE BEST DAYS Thankfully, not every day is so discouraging. There are days I get phone calls like the one I got from Joseph, who began selling drugs—when he was only 13 years old—to help his family pay the bills. Now he is in his 40’s, ready to “bounce back” and, just happened to call, only a few hours after we had met with Erich on that fabulous Friday.
He was updating me on some health struggles he’d been having when he blurted out,
“I am so thankful for all you and the volunteers have done for me. In the beginning, I was so depressed and anxious. I didn’t think there was any way I was going to pay all my fines or get a car or a good job. I never believed that I would get to have visits with my son again. But things are moving forward—slowly, I mean I still live in a garage!
But, last week, I was at my cousin’s house and a guy I knew from prison was there and he invited me back into the game (selling drugs). He was telling me that there was so much money to be made right now. Six months ago, when somebody would make an offer to go back, I would actually think about it, like, why should I keep working so hard for $13/hour when I could be making good money? I would think about it for a few days, but then I would remember my goals and how much I don’t want to go back to prison.
It always ends in death or prison.
But, when this guy talked to me, I didn’t even think about it for one minute! I was like, ‘thanks for the offer man, but that’s just not where I am at in my life right now.’ Jodi, I have worked too hard. I have a future!”
Yeah, somedays are better than others, and with a little bit of help, some people can overcome the obstacles to become the neighbors we want them to be—neighbors who pay taxes and raise their kids and stay sober and find healing from the outrageous trauma of the childhoods and addiction that lead them to commit a crime in the first place. But it takes a community who cares and wants to help. It takes changing a criminal justice system that has been proven not to work.
It takes wine makers who want to donate a portion of their profits to help us realize that dream of a world where all people are able to live into their full potential to contribute to the whole—a world where YOUR MISTAKES DO NOT DEFINE YOU is true for everyone.
Ricochet Launch Party/Open House to Benefit Remnant Initiatives
Sunday, September 22, 2019 @ Day Camp, 12-4PM
21160 N. Hwy 99W, Dundee, Oregon 97115
Check out the facebook event here.
Come celebrate the inaugural vintage of Ricochet and learn more about Remnant Initiatives and how we work toward strengthening our community by helping our neighbors bounce back.
(Tasting is free, and discounts for orders of 6 or more bottles will be in force.)