Imagine coming back into society after 10 years in prison with no family or other support systems; no food, no place to stay, no job. Virginia CARES, a program of New River Community Action, helps ex-prisoners solve the multiple problems associated with reentering society.
The goal, through guidance and counseling, is to reduce crime and recidivism by providing an opportunity for ex-prisoners to become self-sufficient, law-abiding, taxpaying, family-orientated citizens of society.
Support services based on individual needs are coordinated with other agencies to help ex-offenders stay out of jail and transition back into society. VA CARES staff help with basic immediate needs upon release such as food, clothing, and obtaining identification necessary for employment.
Costs to reenter society can be overwhelming for meals and shelter, identification document costs, securing transportation, tools or shoes for work. VA CARES can help provide gas cards and vouchers for transportation, identification documents, housing referrals, GED class expenses, and food. Transportation is the largest barrier in the New River Valley which complicates job searches. Most often participants do not have valid driver’s licenses and may face fees to reinstate. Donated bus passes help in areas with bus transits.
Beyond the basics, VA CARES becomes the support system providing support, referrals to community resources, job readiness skills, and encouragement.
NRCA’s VA CARES program has three caring and dedicated staff to help make a difference. Shannon Lowery, the Case Manager, has been with NRCA in various roles for seven years. Shannon states, “The position is rewarding. When you have someone with no family, no contacts and just got out from 10 years in prison, we become part of their family, working with them to become self-sufficient, and it makes it all worthwhile. With compassion and faith in them, participants feel empowered,” Shannon noted, “People can change, they can become self-sufficient.”
VA CARES added a new position, the Employment Specialist, to program staff in 2015. The Employment Specialist, Nikki Powell, developed and strengthened relationships with local employers to increase job opportunities for our participants. Staff helped 12 ex-offenders to obtain employment in June. Nikki cultivates relationships with employers so she can intervene if there are problems or misunderstandings which might lead to a termination of employment. Most VA CARES participants appreciate their work opportunities and become the best employees.
Preparing someone who may not have held a job for a long time has its challenges. VA CARES staff offer job readiness skills training. Instruction varies with each client but may include basic skills such as creating a resume, what to do or not do during an interview, and proper interview attire.
Strengthening the VA CARES team, Krista Davy is the part-time Intake Specialist. Krista is also the Community Service Worker for NRCA’s Emergency Assistance Program in Montgomery County bringing community resources and experience to the VA CARES program.
With community agencies working together, VA CARES focuses on preventing further criminal activity and restoring the fabric of the family in crisis because of imprisonment. Shannon noted that over the past years, VA CARES has harnessed the support of many community partners. One strong collaboration is with Radford Probation and Parole where VA CARES staff offer peer support groups twice a month utilizing an evidence-based curriculum.
VA CARES is active in the NRV Reentry Council and receives strong support from the council including volunteers. The Reentry Council subcommittees focus on housing, employment, and public awareness to help the community understand the barriers faced by ex-offenders.
With community support, VA CARES also promotes Life Skills classes, which include sessions on employee motivation, anger management, money management, family matters, parenting and other topics.
Last year, VA CARES staff and volunteers developed the FAST (Facilitating A Successful Transition) project in the Montgomery County Jail. Employees and volunteers visit the jail monthly and meet with offenders who were within six months of being released. These sessions introduce the offenders to the VA CARES program and identify the specific needs each would likely experience upon release. Staff and volunteers then develop an individualized case management plan for each offender and provide information on services and employment opportunities to access after release. The program has recently started in the NRV Regional Jail once a week for 12-week periods. VA CARES provides more intensive services for those most at-risk of returning to prison.
Shannon noted many success stories during her time with VA CARES; many participants have given back to the program by sharing their stories in the community. One participant received an award from the state VA CARES over-sight agency, demonstrating extraordinary success in meeting his transition goals, while another gives back as an AmeriCorps member providing critical service hours for operating NRCA’s To Our House men’s winter shelter program. Shannon mentioned, “VA CARES is a voluntary program, they are not required to participate, and not all are success stories, it depends on how much the participant wants to succeed.”
The Virginia CARES program has been shown to reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars. The program provides second chances that help make our neighborhoods safer and generates tax dollars through employment that go back into our communities. We appreciate the local support that is making this program a success in the New River Valley.