AmeriCorps staffs effort help offenders rebuild key community ties

Each One Reach One connects offenders with volunteers who can help them find work

March 31, 2014 | 11:13 pm

Next to family, corrections officials say a relationship with community is key to preventing an offender’s return to jail or prison. But building or rebuilding that connection can be difficult when one hasn’t been part of the community for months or years.

“We’re trying to fill that hole,” said Nellie O’Mara-Morrissey, restorative justice community coordinator for the Each One Reach One program.

O’Mara-Morrissey connects offenders with volunteers who can help them find work. That can mean volunteer work on community projects to build a work record and help with resume writing and job skills.

“That’s a part of probation that people overlook sometimes,” said Lee Gray of Iowa City, referred by his probation officer to Each One Reach One. “They understand that people make mistakes and at the end of the day they still have good hearts.”

Launched in 2007, Each One Reach One worked with 342 offenders in the Linn and Johnson counties over the past year, with 225 offenders finding employment.

That success rate brought an offer of three years’ funding from state AmeriCorps, the Iowa branch of the federal community service program. AmeriCorps workers are the program’s staff.

The AmeriCorps members work for free, but the grant of $460,435 a year for three years would cover the cost of 50 members in Linn, Johnson, and Tama counties, according to Jean Kuehl, assistant director of Department of Correctional Services for the Cedar Rapids-based 6th Judicial District.

“(AmeriCorps) members provide the capacity to do what staff can’t do — provide the intensive, ongoing mentoring support to improve their chances of success in school, work, and life,” Kuehl wrote in an email. “It takes a lot of time, but the Each One Reach One philosophy has worked very well.”

State budget cuts and a hiring freeze sent Kuehl on a search to cover the grant’s $50,000 local match. Linn County has granted $15,000, and North Liberty $4,000. Kuehl continues to seek awards from Johnson County and other potential donors, including the cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

Linn County’s grant will fund five full-time and seven part-time AmeriCorps workers in the county.

A full-time employee at Iowa Workforce Development, Clarence Borck directs offenders with community-service sentences to the Johnson County work crew he supervises for Each One Reach One. He may also place offenders where they can build a resume — Habitat for Humanity for an offender interested in working as a builder, for instance.

“I see them full-time in a structured environment (at Workforce), and I see them in an environment part-time where they can let their hair down and have fun and at the same time give back to the community,” said Borck, 49, of Iowa City.

The new grants will bring “more resources available to help these kids on the front end,” Kuehl said. That will come through Children of Promise and Trailblazers, a Boy Scouts program for at-risk youth.

“There’s a fine line between at-risk and troubled, and a lot of people don’t recognize that,” said Quintin Thurmond, AmeriCorps coordinator for Trailblazers.

Thurmond works with the Boy Scouts organization to run Boy and Cub Scout troops meeting at five Cedar Rapids locations. He makes sure the scouts have transportation to their weekly meetings and plans day trips to the Scouts’ Howard H. Cherry Reservation and overnight camps on the Mount Mercy University and Kirkwood Community College campuses.

“I was that at-risk youth,” said Thurmond, 33, who’s studying criminal justice at Mount Mercy . “I know what it means not to have that structure.”

Children of Promise matches volunteer mentors with children who have a family member in the correctional system. Children are referred through corrections staff, churches, or other community groups. AmeriCorps member Jenny Evans recruits, interviews, and trains mentors who agree to spend at least an hour a week with them. She said there are now about 65 children in the program.

“After this, I will probably stick with the program and become a mentor,” said Evans, 28, of Iowa City, about to begin her last yearlong AmeriCorps term.

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