By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Welcome to the middle class, Kathryn and Alan Woolery.
If you told them a decade ago that by 2011, they would meet, be married, hold down steady jobs, and own their own house and a car, they would have told you to get lost.
They were both in prison just 10 years ago.
And that’s not all. Four years ago, just two years after her release, and just as she and Alan were beginning to plan their life together, Kathryn was diagnosed with cancer.
And that’s when Rita Flynn and her staff at Catholic Charities’ TurnAround program doubled down their bets on Kathryn’s life.
They not only provided her with their “usual” services for people returning to society after paying their debt in prison, TurnAround staff also provided her with funds to cover the medical co-pays for her cancer treatment, rides to and from her doctor’s office and the outpatient clinics, and even covered the rent on her apartment when she was too sick to work.
“The day before Thanksgiving,” she told nearly 100 clients and staff crammed into the TurnAround’s headquaters at 31st and Main streets, “I found out that I am a cancer survivor. I am cancer-free.”
The news brought cheers to the Dec. 20 Christmas Party where holiday cheer was already in abundance.
Then Kathryn told the clients, some of them brand-new to TurnAround, the shape she was in when she finally hit rock bottom six years ago and asked for help.
“When I came to TurnAround, I was still doing drugs and running the streets,” she said.
The help she received was welcome. But most welcome, Kathryn said, was that Flynn and her staff saw her, not as an ex-offender headed back to prison, but as a human being who could make it as long as she knew that someone else cared about her.
“If people just give this program a chance, it will work for them,” Kathryn said. “We don’t need that much help any more. But to this day, I know that if we need to come to Rita, she will be there for us.”
Rodney Sutherlin knows it.
April 23, 2008. That’s the day he was released from prison. But he had a family, including a mother whose love still brings tears to his eyes. And he also had selfish pride.
“My pride wouldn’t allow me to ask for help,” he said. “But finally I decided that if I could get a bus pass, or help finding a job, I’d give it a try. That’s all I needed.”
But it wasn’t all he received.
“After I came a few times, I found out that I was able to get some one to talk to me, someone who took me seriously as a human being,” he said.
And that has meant everything, so far, to Mike Dunsmore, released on Nov. 29, 2010, after serving 25 years for armed robbery. (“Nobody was hurt. I thank God for that every day,” he quickly added.)
While Dunsmore was locked up for 25 years, his family died, one by one. His parents, his aunts and uncles, everyone who could help him when he finally was released.
But he found a new family, and a new support system, at TurnAround.
“Without this place, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I would have offended again,” Dunsmore said.
“The main thing they did for me is they helped me trust again,” he said. “They helped me know that society cares. I trusted them, and they are my family.”
Brian Morrow also considers the TurnAround staff, and the friends he has made who are clients just like he is, to be just like his family.
Morrow had served eight years in the U.S. Air Force, including deployment in Desert Storm, the first Iraq War, when he “ended up getting in a big mess” that landed him in prison for 13 years.
“When I got out, they were here for me,” Morrow said. “I finally saw some hope, someone who cared and who could help me. They opened their arms for me, and I will always be grateful for that.”
Sometimes the help, provided through the generosity of donors, is simple. A gently used pair of jeans. A clean shirt. A bar of soap.
Sometimes it’s a line on a job, or a bus pass to get to it.
And when any of them make it — and most of them will — that’s Christmas in a deeply meaningful way to Flynn and her staff.
“The men and women in this room have made the right choices, and turned their lives around,” Flynn said. “We get more from them than we ever give.”
And it is what Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph does, said special party guest Mike Halterman, head of the agency.
“Working with you is a pleasure,” Halterman told the clients of TurnAround. “We see it as a Gospel mandate, and we enjoy every minute with you and everything we can help you with.”
To learn more about Catholic Charities’ TurnAround Re-entry Program, visit www.catholiccharities-kcsj.org, click on “Services” and scroll down and click on “Strengthening Families and Rebuilding Lives.”