Leroy Gardner's cellphone is shut off. This is not a good thing — last summer it wasn't receiving calls and he was back in prison, wrongly accused of violating parole.
I wrote a few weeks ago about Gardner — an ex-offender cavalierly released by federal authorities in Hartford with no money, clothes or resources for food or housing. He came to mind as I learned that the governor's proposed state budget would eliminate the $300,000 needed to run a successful re-entry program for ex-offenders.
STRIDE, now in its 10th year, provides transition training for felons three months before they're released. There was no such program for Gardner, who was under federal jurisdiction, not state, when he was kicked to the curb with no support.
This is the second time in two years that STRIDE has been initially chopped from Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget. In 2007, the agency got notification it was a goner a day after receiving national recognition for its job-readiness program from a consortium of community colleges."It would absolutely be a bad move," said Cynthia White, 45, a STRIDE participant.
The single mother was released from York women's prison in Niantic in February 2008 after serving 22 months for forgery. Now, White and her son are living at her mother's Bridgeport home, a humbling experience for a woman who had been working and living on her own since she was 19.
She is attending Housatonic Community College, working toward a degree in human services. Her work background is in office administration. So far, it has been 70 interviews and counting.
"I just need one individual to take a chance on me," White said Friday. "We need programs like this to prepare ex-offenders. Without this program I would not have had the confidence to get out there. It helps people help themselves."
The biggest obstacle for ex-offenders is having to explain how they ended up locked up in the first place.
There is not usually a very sympathetic ear. Leroy Gardner has had to come to the reality that even though he's bilingual, eloquent and has administrative office skills, he's also a serial bank robber. That stops a lot of conversations.
STRIDE teaches its participants to be honest in the interviews, take accountability for their past actions, emphasize that they served their time and are looking to redeem themselves.
The clients also learn about resume writing, job search techniques, interviewing and life skills — and they hear from motivational speakers. They are provided interview clothes by Dress For Success, a nonprofit that serves the ex-offender market.
The message: Be prepared. Stay positive. Make a good first impression.
"It's a holistic approach, rather than just employment-based," said Julie Scrapchansky, STRIDE's program coordinator. "We try to make sure that upon their release they have resources for whatever area they're going to."
The organization is based at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson and has offices at York and Bergin prison in Storrs. The annual budget is paltry when compared to a looming $8.7 billion state deficit. We understand that means everything is on the table. That's where setting priorities comes in.
"We have hundreds of people out in the community," Scrapchansky said. "This is truly a cost-effective measure for the state of Connecticut. I can't understand why Gov. Rell doesn't see it. It just doesn't make sense."
STRIDE helps ex-offenders stay out of prison. It serves a disenfranchised population — and has generated national attention for putting people back to work.
Sounds like a keeper to me.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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