By Jodi Hansen
That Awkward Moment When You Try To Explain Your Work…
I handed my business card over to the nice lady at the community meeting who had just asked me, “So, what do you do?” The card is sort of a mandatory tool of the networking trade, but honestly, it’s not all that helpful in answering this common question. So, I turned it over and showed her our mission printed on the back,
Remnant Initiatives exists to INSPIRE and COACH community minded individuals and groups into ACTION that improves our capacity to serve our Yamhill Valley neighbors transitioning from incarceration into mainstream society.
After reading the card, she gazed up with a puzzled look, and with a polite laugh asked, “What does that even mean?” I smiled, acknowledging the confusion as a common response and then explained.
A Week in the Life
Building our community’s capacity to better receive and serve people releasing from prison is complex work. It requires lots of networking with government agencies, law enforcement, faith communities, and nonprofits for a start. Then there are the folks transitioning back into mainstream society and all that we do to help build their capacity to be self-sufficient and law abiding citizens. The work is very relational and starts before they leave prison.
One of our key volunteers gets the process going by writing an introductory card to everyone who will be coming to our county inviting them to apply for Home for Good and Remnant Initiatives. Another volunteer processes the letters and applications that folks send in response to those cards. She writes them back with next steps and sets up phone calls through prison transition and release counselors, or chaplains to start a dialogue that will last for weeks or months as we collaboratively help them prepare for their release.
Several of our volunteers are trained and approved to meet with people in prison before they release to our area. The goal is to have a plan for housing, recovery support, transportation, employment, email/telephone access, clothing, healthcare, and food before they leave the institution. Other volunteers are trained to provide release-day pick-ups from one of the local prisons or from the Greyhound bus station for men coming here from one of the Eastern Oregon facilities.
Release day is a busy day. The first stop is breakfast or coffee and then a visit to the Parole and Probation office followed by a trip to the county Department of Human Services for food stamps. Then a trip to Goodwill for some clothing, the local transit authority for bus passes, and the grocery store for food and basic hygiene items.
Throughout the first week, our volunteers help our newly-released-neighbors with transportation to local nonprofits, government agencies, employment resources, and wherever else they need to go. It usually takes a few weeks to a few months to get a driver’s license reinstated and transportation is a huge need when one is trying to get back on their feet. These neighbors usually leave prison with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a couple of boxes of personal items. The need for the most basic of necessities is great. Hope and confidence steadily build as each of these needs is met.
After our new neighbor is settled in a bit, we’re all about community building and helping them to develop a new network of friends and acquaintances. Since the state requires offenders to return to the county where they broke the law, it’s very easy for people in transition to fall back in with old friends and old dysfunctional habits. So, we work hard to create opportunities for developing new and healthy relationships. Sunday breakfast church, Monday dinner church, a Tuesday night men’s group, frequent coffee dates, check-in phone calls and “how ya doing?” texts combined with all the time spent in the car while running errands, are some of the ways we build healthy relationships needed for successful reintegration. It’s time consuming and it’s not easy work, but it is rewarding to see the transformative power of simple care and concern working out in someone’s life.
A couple of months ago, while enjoying a release day breakfast at the Valley Commissary in McMinnville, our newest neighbor chuckled, “I prayed that this time would be different. I have been to prison before, but last time my mom picked me up and our first stop was the bar! Today, I am having breakfast in some organic, hippie café with two ladies I only just met this morning at the bus station. Maybe this time things really will be different.”
So why do we do all this?
People often ask us why we would invest in folks we don’t even know, especially ones who have broken the law. The answer for us is multi-faceted. Some of our volunteers do this work because their faith compels them. Many of us believe that everyone deserves a second chance and that change is always possible. Other volunteers have served time in prison themselves and know how much it would have meant to them to have just a little assistance when they released. Some of us have experienced the criminal justice system through family members’ experiences or our professions and just want to make a difference. But, whatever personally motivates us, we all agree that, ultimately, we want safer, healthier communities.
It just doesn’t make sense that our state would spend over $40,000 a year to lock someone up and then return them to our local neighborhoods with virtually no support and a high probability of failing. It seems we are missing a critical element to rehabilitating our law-breaking citizens when we fail to fund the support they need to reintegrate back into society.
We human beings, by nature, will always return to what we know when we are under stress. Change is hard for anyone (remember your last weight loss or exercise endeavor?), but change is virtually impossible when a person is deep in the despair that comes from not being able to meet the most basic of human needs. Food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and belonging are keys to decreasing recidivism and to creating safer communities.
Public Safety 101
A wise person once said that building a fence around your house does not make you safer. Knowing your neighbors is what makes you safer. This truth sunk in one day while I was driving Andrew, one of our newly released neighbors, to the DMV to get an ID.
We were joking around and laughing about some of the crazy rationalizations that he had used in the past to justify his need for drugs, when he blurted out, “Thank you Jodi for doing this. For all the ways you and everybody are helping me get my act together.”
It was light moment and so I replied, “Well, you know I only do this so you won’t steal my car for drug money!”
As we laughed, he responded, “I would never steal YOUR car Jodi. But, if you were, like some random lady that I never met, I mean, I might steal her car. But, I would NEVER steal your car. I mean, I know you.”
BAM! There it is. I would never steal your car because I know you. And that might just be the best answer to the simple question, “So, what do you do?”