By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — It took Mary Washington some time even to learn how to walk down a city street again.
“I had to learn how to walk down a street without looking back, thinking someone was going to get me,” Washington said.
She was one of the success stories of TurnAround told at a Oct. 22 reception that also involved community leaders.
Today, Washington said, she is in college just two years after her release following more than 11 years in prison for a crime she definitely committed.
“I know the crime I committed was not right, and the time I did for it, I deserved it,” Washington said. “My life was drugs, alcohol and partying.”
“Was” is the operative word, Washington said. Today she is in college, seeking a degree in social work so she can pass along to others what she received from TurnAround, a Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph project that helps ex-offenders build new lives filled with hope.
“When I came here, Catholic Charities embraced me and helped me set the goals I wanted,” she said.
“I am a self-motivator,” Washington said. “I was going to go to any lengths to do what I had to do to stay out of prison. And now I have to give back what was given to me — unconditional love from people I didn’t even know.
“Without them lifting me up, helping me get through my trials and tribulations, I would never have made it,” she said.
Kevin Hurley wore a brown, pin-striped business suit that looked like Armani himself tailored it for him. It was a far cry from what he was wearing just a year ago, before his Jan. 11 release from 30 years in prison.
Today, in addition to a new suit, he has a job, a roof over his head, and reason to believe in himself, all thanks to TurnAround which helped him with even the simplest needs upon his release — such as clothing, an apartment, a bus pass, and soap and toothpaste — then later with training and a lead on a good job.
“God put Catholic Charities in my path,” Hurley said at the reception.
Like Washington, Hurley said that TurnAround helped him realize that he was worth more than the worst thing he had ever done, and that he had much to contribute to society, rather than take from it.
“That part of my life is done,” he said. “I’ve changed my ways because I committed myself to something better.”
Hurley now volunteers at TurnAround and eventually wants to tell inmates who are about to be released that there is hope.
“Those guys in prison, they’ll listen to me. I’ve been there. If it worked for me, it will work for them. The aim for getting out of prison is not just getting out, but staying out.”
Jan Motl, TurnAround’s second director after Rita Flynn established the program more than a decade ago, said it works.
Out of 20,000 Missouri jail and prison inmates released each year, some 41 percent will return to prison within two years.
Of the 400 or so clients that TurnAround helps each year in offices in Kansas City and St. Joseph, only about 16 percent wind up back in prison.
TurnAround partners with the U.S. Department of Labor which has awarded them operating grants for three years straight, as well as various local and state agencies such as the Bishop Sullivan Center, Metropolitan Community Colleges, the Builders’ Association, and numerous parishes and churches of numerous denominations.
But the real heroes are the people who are served, Motl said.
“We at Catholic Charities have been honored to witness the success of our many clients who have done so with great fortitude,” Motl said.
“This is one of our signature programs,” said Deacon Dan Powers, Catholic Charities’ CEO.
Before coming to Kansas City-St. Joseph this summer, Deacon Powers was the head of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Marquette, Mich. When that agency had an idea for a program to benefit newly released ex-offenders, Deacon Powers said he asked other Catholic Charities agencies in surrounding dioceses for help.
“They all pointed to Kansas City and this program,” Deacon Powers said. “And they are right. TurnAround is a model.”
Alvin Brooks, longtime justice activist, former mayor pro tem of Kansas City and a member of St. Monica Parish, said that TurnAround is an example of Christian love in action.
“You do a lot of good work,” he said. “But it wouldn’t mean a thing if your heart weren’t in the right place.”
Brooks reminded the dozens in attendance that Genesis says that God created the heavens and earth, then he made man and woman in his own image and likeness.
“If you believe in that, it is your responsibility to do your best to understand your brother and sister. You can’t be a racist or a bigot or a homophobe,” Brooks said.
Brooks said governments spend far more incarcerating young people than they spend educating them in colleges.
“Yet, every single time a budget comes up, prison gets an increase and education and social services get a decrease. Now which is more cost effective?” Brooks said.
“The way you reduce crime and violence is to reduce poverty. And the way you reduce poverty is through education and job training,” he said.
Brooks also said that TurnAround helps give ex-offenders their dreams and goals back.
“God bless you,” he said. “Even though you may not get even a footnote in history, do it anyway.
“Everybody’s got a dream. Those who have committed crimes, they are still our brothers and sisters. They need to dream, and you are doing something to help them dream of something beyond prison walls.”
The TurnAround Program of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph is seeking volunteer mentors, as well as donations of such supplies as toiletries and clothing. Information on ways to help can be found at http://www.catholiccharities-kcsj.org/turnaround-community-re-entry-after-prison