By Amanda Winger
When an ex-offender is released from prison or jail, they are free... but are they really? Are they free to find affordable housing with no positive rental history? Are they free to find employment with a criminal background? Are they free to return to a crime-ridden community and expect change? They are if they are part of the Boaz & Ruth Rebuilding Lives program in Richmond, Va. According to Census data, Boaz & Ruth is in the middle of six of the seven census tracts in Richmond with the highest numbers of returned prisoners. Addressing the pressing need for a holistic solution for individuals wanting a second chance, this organization has involved the entire community to create a way for ex-offenders to restore their lives and their dignity.
It is difficult to sustain long-term individual change without transforming the community as well. Who better to be change agents for a community than community members themselves who may have contributed to the community challenges? Men and women doing the hard work of personal change are changing the community around them as well. That's what makes Boaz & Ruth's program so unique.
Since 2002, Boaz & Ruth has renovated a dozen buildings, started six training social enterprises ("Life Labs") and created hundreds of jobs. Crime in Highland Park has been reduced by more than 60 percent. Community members can now dine at the only sit-down restaurant in the area, Boaz & Ruth's FireHouse 15 Café, order catering from the restaurant, shop at Harvest Thrift for furniture, or browse Sunny Days Clothing Thrift for clothes. Other Life Labs include Mountain Movers, Cathedral Construction and Estate Sale Services. The moving, construction and food service industries typically offer entry-level employment and are often more open to hiring individuals who need a second chance.
Nearly 30 percent of ex-offenders in the state of Virginia and 50 percent nationwide return to prison. But at Boaz & Ruth, less than 13 percent of program graduates have returned to prison. A key component to their success is acceptance into a community where they gain instruction and purpose derived from meaningful employment. Trainees earn stipends for the work they perform in the six social enterprises operated by Boaz & Ruth. This approach empowers trainees to devote themselves full-time to their restoration while still having money for food and housing. Equally significant, this approach allows trainees to establish a record of positive employment to build upon when they graduate.
Boaz & Ruth graduate Lindell Sykes tells his story:
"On October 6, 2008, after living a life which included going to jail on over 30 occasions and being homeless on more occasions than I can accurately say, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt I went into a detox unit where the long walk back into my own life began. What now?
After talking with people I trusted, I came to Boaz & Ruth to serve on the construction team and earn a living stipend. I came to believe that being here would encourage my own spiritual growth, allow me to meet my financial obligations, continue my education, and provide a place among people to whom service is a way of life. All of these things have proven to be true.
Since then I have obtained a Career Studies Certificate in substance abuse counseling, a driver's license for the first time in 28 years, a vehicle, a new apartment, and I became both a husband and a Certified Recovery Coach. This is what is being made possible through Boaz & Ruth for those of us who have come to a turning point in our lives."
This social enterprise model not only heals individuals like Lindell, but it also heals the economy. With earned revenue from the training Life Labs covering one-third of the cost per participant, just $40/day is needed to fully fund employment, training and case management for one participant for a year. This is half the cost of re-incarceration with proven results that are twice as effective at breaking the cycle of recidivism. As founder Martha Rollins states, "At Boaz & Ruth, we believe that all individuals can choose to shop and dine as part of doing mission. Intentionally shopping and eating outside of our comfort zone -- even 10 percent of the time -- can move the economic needle toward justice."
It is clear that the job problems that our country is facing today are much more complex than simply adding jobs. We must heal the people and communities around us. We must band together and be part of the solution. We must not discard a segment of our population who with some training and experience can use their gifts for the greater good. Join Boaz & Ruth in their mission to rebuild lives and communities through relationships, training, transitional jobs and economic revitalization. Through our participation in the JobRaising challenge, we are proud to take a stand for people needing a second chance with this proven, successful model. Please consider donating through our JobRaising.com site and help us to move the economic needle of justice.