Agency helps ex-offenders become productive members of society

07/19/2014 12:00 AM

07/18/2014 7:21 PM

Gary James, a 37-year-old Oklahoma native, got out of a Texas penitentiary in December and was sent to a halfway house in Fort Worth.

When he arrived here, he faced what many ex-offenders have to deal with on being released from prison.

“I had no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no ID, no family here, no nothing,” he said.

Without those things, ex-felons are severely hampered in acquiring two of their greatest needs: employment and housing. And without those two necessities, and some emotional support and guidance, their chances of going back to prison are greatly increased.

For James, a notice posted on a bulletin board led him to Texas ReEntry Services, Inc., a comprehensive social services program designed to ease the reintegration of ex-offenders into mainstream society.

When he went to the agency, he said, he arrived on “moving day.” Founder and CEO Kay Smith asked if he’d like to make a little money by helping them move into a new building. He accepted the offer.

James, convicted on charges of possession of methamphetamine, went through the Texas ReEntry’s job readiness program and is currently involved with the FACT (Fathers and Children Together) program.

“They helped me get my birth certificate, my Social [Security] and paid to help me get my ID,” he said, adding that when he was accepted into the North Texas Joint Electrical Training Center program — “a school that comes with a job” — the re-entry agency paid for his apprenticeship card.

Having served a total of 15 years in prison, the father of three children (ages 6 to 18) said he could not have made it without TXRS, which also provided resources to help him find a place to live.

“I can’t tell you how many times Kay has saved the day for me. … They saved my life, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” he said.

He’s not the only one being helped by the program. Last year, Texas ReEntry served 1,300 clients, not counting the 50 people every week enrolled in anger management classes and those studying to get their GED. This year, the nonprofit expects to help about 2,000.

Smith said 79 percent of those who went through the program last year found jobs, and those jobs paid an average of $10.16 an hour.

While visiting a job readiness class with 15 students last week, I heard some of them talk about how hard it is coming back to a community after being away for so long.

One man who had been in the penitentiary 21 years said he was awed by how much things had changed.

“Where are the telephone booths?” he asked. “No pay phones.”

Others talked about the difficulty in reconnecting with family, getting used to the ability to choose (even a brand of cereal) again and learning to communicate without exhibiting hostility. These are issues they confront at TXRS, along with learning how to complete a résumé and conduct a job interview.

But the agency is having financial problems right now, said Smith, who receives no salary. The $500,000 annual budget is running about $10,000 a month short on revenue.

Smith said the agency, which has been around since 1998, is not about to close its doors, because its work is too important.

Although it receives funding through partners like Workforce Solutions, MHMR and Directions Home, she said more money is needed to continue serving the many people who need help.

There are about 120,000 ex-offenders in Tarrant County, with about 6,000 returning annually from state and federal prisons.

The key to their not committing other crimes and going back to the penitentiary is to have programs like this that help make them productive members of society. They need your support.

About Bob Ray Sanders

Bob Ray Sanders

@BobRaySanders

Bob Ray Sanders is often criticized for writing about things he could not have experienced because, some readers say, "he can't be that old." The truth is Bob Ray has been a professional journalist for 40 years and in three media: newspaper, television and radio.

A Fort Worth native who knows and cares about his community, and those with whom he shares this planet, this is a columnist who is not afraid to speak out on behalf of downtrodden people or the abused Earth.

Email Bob Ray at bobraysanders@star-telegram.com.

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