May 25, 2017
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Ministry finds ways to support those released from local prison

Racine group ready to expand into Kenosha County


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BY DENEEN SMITH
dsmith@kenoshanews.com


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A Racine-based program that provides support for people as they leave prison is expanding into Kenosha County.

The Racine Vocational Ministry has been laying the groundwork for several years to expand programing into Kenosha. The group recently announced a grant from the St. Matthew’s Tithe Fund will allow it to begin offering limited programming in Kenosha, with the goal of continuing to expand here.

An earlier grant from Catholic Campaign for Human Development allowed the ministry to start planning for the expansion.

“We’re going to start with just five participants,” said executive director James Schatzman. He said the ministry hopes to open an office in Kenosha in March, planning at first to offer programs one day a week.

“We are very, very excited,” Schatzman said, noting that a $5,000 grant from St. Matthew’s is allowing the group to open its doors locally. “Sometimes all it takes is one person to say ‘yes.’”

The Racine Vocational Ministry offers programming to people who were leaving prison to come back to the Racine community. The group’s aim is to improve former inmates’ chances of having a successful life outside of prison.

The group has worked with 500 people since 2005. Schatzman said the area recidivism rate is 7 percent compared to a 33 percent state average over three years.

“Our program for prison re-entry is called our Second Chance Program. It’s basically set up for people who are returning to the community from state or federal corrections and who have been identified by corrections as being at high risk to re-offend, to help them negotiate their way back into the community,” Schatzman said.

It started as a mandatory program, but shifted to voluntary participation in 2013,

Each person gets a program tailored to his/her own needs. But everyone, Schatzman said, gets cognitive therapy aimed at getting participants to relearn how to handle stress, to deal with conflict and setbacks and how to avoid “criminal thinking.”

“Part of it is rebuilding a mindset of what is safe and what is not,” Schatzman said.

Success story

Eric Fleming has been in the program for two years.

Fleming was in prison for 20 years, sentenced for assault. He walked out at the age of 45 “with $200 to my name” and the clothes he was wearing. His family lived in Arkansas. He did not have any support system waiting for him.

“I was 25 when I went in. I grew up in the joint. Doing all that time, that was all I knew,” he said. “I didn’t have any sort of job experience. I didn’t have any skills. I basically had to start from scratch.”

Fleming said he heard about the Racine Vocational Ministry and decided to apply. “I’ve been hooked on it ever since.”

He said the program offered him counseling, worked with him on job skills, and helped him with things like mock job interviews. “They even gave me clothes,” he said.

Most important, he said, they gave him a support system. His main counselor became one of the strongest relationships in his life. When his appendix ruptured last year and he was rushed to the emergency room “the first or second person I called was Heather (Bennett, the program director),” he said. “The next thing you know I’m having surgery and the people from RVM were coming in, they were right there with me. It goes beyond being a program. It’s like family.”

Since getting out of prison, he’s learned new skills and a devotion to helping other people. He volunteers regularly with his church, and leads meetings for Formers Anonymous, a 12-step program for former prisoners. He’s won awards for his work including, in December, a Beacon Award from the ministry. He even received a letter from a state senator praising his work.

Fleming has been working for a year in a Union Grove factory. “I was able to get a job. I’ve got my own apartment. I’ve got my own car. I’ve got insurance on my car. I pay taxes,” he said.

Church gives grant

Jenny McCombe, chair of the service and outreach committee at St. Matthews, said the grant to the ministry was the largest they have given. “We felt really strongly and passionately that it would be giving people who were disenfranchised and coming out of prison who would potentially be homeless a chance,” McCombe said. “Racine has been very successful. We felt it was time for Kenosha to be involved also and to give people this opportunity.”

Schatzman said the ministry hopes its small entry into Kenosha will grow into a program similar to what the organization offers in Racine. Organizers are continuing to apply for grants and sponsors to fund the Kenosha venture and seeking office space in the city.

“If we can get to $20,000 we can probably open a half-time office,” he said.

Fleming said he encourages former offenders to get into the program if they can. “All you have to do is open your mouth and say, ‘I don’t want to keep doing what I have been doing,’” he said.

He said he likes to tell people new to Formers Anonymous his own story.

“I never did imagine I would be who I am today,” Fleming said. “People tell me every day how proud they are of me. Sometimes that’s hard for me to register, because you are not used to people telling you good things. It just makes me realize I came a long way. I thank God for the person I am now.”


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