‘AMP’ing up possibilities for success after lockup

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Third in a series on Linn County-based Fresh Start Ministries

Communities have a good reason to invest and engage in the jail transition process: The majority of those in our jails are residents of the local community who will soon return home.

Yet many in Linn County, as well as counties throughout the state, view jails and inmates solely as the purview of the criminal justice system and not an issue the larger community need address. Too many times the past is held against those who have paid for their crimes, creating additional struggles for those who hope to re-enter neighborhoods and move forward.

Volunteers trained as mentors through a program under the umbrella of Linn County-based Fresh Start Ministries are aiming to turn the tide by offering themselves and their expertise to those recently released from jail.

“The truth is, I’ve gotten so much more out of being mentor than I could ever give to the program. It’s been through this program that I’ve met some of my best friends,” said Steve Stefani, who has served as the coordinator of the Adult Mentoring Program for about a year. He became involved in the program mostly on a whim. Having recently moved to the area from the western U.S., he was sitting in church when he answered a call for volunteers.

“I was eager to get involved in the community and do my part,” he said. Most people who train to be mentors share a similar philosophy — they want to use their time and talents to make a difference.

Brochures and informational meetings help those interested in volunteering with the Adult Mentoring Program run through Fresh Start Ministries in Cedar Rapids better understand the commitments associated with the program. All volunteers receive significant training before being paired with former jail inmates, and oversight once their work begins.
Brochures and informational meetings help those interested in volunteering with the Adult Mentoring Program run through Fresh Start Ministries in Cedar Rapids better understand the commitments associated with the program. All volunteers receive significant training before being paired with former jail inmates, and oversight once their work begins. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

The Adult Mentoring Program, or AMP, has existed since the early 2000s. Originally launched within the 6th Judicial District and supported through the AmeriCorps program, it found a permanent home within Fresh Start about two years ago when it was folded into the Reintegration Initiative for Safety and Empowerment outreach services.

Current inmates, or individuals newly released from jail, apply for the mentoring program, which offers both one-on-one interactions and small group assistance. Once a part of the program, these individuals become “core members” and are provided positive social support — compassion and accountability — intended to ease their transition from jail to community.

Mentors are volunteers who have undergone training and initial oversight. Many have certain professional backgrounds — law enforcement officers, ministers, social workers, etc. — that could help them better understand and communicate with the core member, but having such a background isn’t a requirement.

“Anyone not currently on probation or parole can be a mentor,” Stefani said, noting that about 50 percent of those who receive mentoring look for ways to pay forward the kindness and support they’ve received. “Mentors with a past can be very powerful. So the main thing we are looking for is people who have a strong desire to help others.”

Core members are paired with an individual or with a group of between four and seven mentors, known as a Circle of Support and Accountability. At least initially, the meetings are held frequently, usually once per week. The contact continues for as long as the core member needs it, typically about a year. As coordinator, Stefani works to screen and match mentors and core members based on shared interests, skills and goals.

The groups use a dialogue process that allows everyone to discuss difficult issues in safe ways. The core member is both supported and held accountable to benchmarks and goals.

“This isn’t a group of people that’s going to necessarily do things for the core member, but a group that’s going to offer positive guidance,” he said. For example, instead of offering a ride to a meeting the group would guide the core member on how to best access transportation that meets his or her needs.

“Maybe initially that means looking at bus schedules and routes. Later it could be a discussion on how investment in a vehicle or even a bicycle can help that person to become more self-sufficient. So, mentoring isn’t a ‘let me do that for you’ proposition but more of a ‘what is it that you need and how can you accomplish it.’”

The Adult Mentoring Program also works closely with the core member’s other lines of accountability and support, such as probation and parole officers. It’s through these open lines of communication that the group gets to know the person and the unique set of circumstances.

Just like other aspects of the RISE program, initial meetings are usually about basic necessities. Does the core member have a place to sleep? A job? A driver’s license or other identification? Food? As those needs are met and the individual becomes more stable, the group focuses on next steps. What does this person need to fully reintegrate into the community and to thrive?

Answers take time, and aren’t always a straight line between Point A and Point B. Core members and mentors, after all, are human.

“People coming out of jail often have no stable home or family life to return to,” Stefani said. “For those people, these groups can replicate that type of support system — people who are there for you, who love you and support you, even while they are holding your feet to the fire. They want the best for you and expect the best from you.”

Mentoring isn’t a quick fix, nor is it a silver bullet. But when successful it benefits the individual, the mentors and the community. All of us want our neighbors to be stable, productive and safe.

As of this writing, seven core members are being mentored and Stefani is working to launch three new Circles. If there is one constant in the process it is need. The program needs volunteers — people of all backgrounds and life experiences who want to make a difference. Those interested should contact RISE or Stefani for more information.

Whether through volunteerism with Fresh Start or one of the myriad other service organizations throughout the Corridor, all of us can play a part. When we work together, our neighborhoods are safer and more welcoming. Helping people be productive means shifting tax dollars to other needs, and protecting the next generation from destructive cycles of violence and crime.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 19, 2017. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette