By LINDA M. LINONIS
Promoters of the Hope Conference believe the event will be another tool to reduce violence in the city and Mahoning Valley.
The event next Thursday at Kilcawley Center of Youngstown State University is directed at returning citizens — or ex-prison inmates who have served their sentences — and anyone with a state, county, federal or juvenile felony or misdemeanor record. Also attending will be people who work with this part of the population.
Recently, Guy Burney, coordinator of the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence; Toni Tablack of Mahoning County Job and Family Services and Child Support Enforcement; Lola Simmons, re-entry coordinator of Home for Good at ACTION (Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods); and the Rev. Willie Peterson, pastor of NewBirth Kimmelbrook Church and executive director of Center for Community Empowerment at Rockford Village, met to discuss the conference.
“The mandate is to reduce violence, and this is one way,” Burney said. “Returning citizens must be able to access resources and find a way to be productive again.”
Simmons added that the conference “is about educating this group of people who need help.” She said this effort will help “reduce recidivism.”
ACTION’s Home for Good program is a referral service for ex-offenders who might find it hard to navigate what various agencies and organizations can do for them. “Here, we have the information they need,” Simmons said.
Tablack explained that JFS and Child Support Enforcement can help in two areas: driver’s-license reinstatement and child support. Depending on the situation, she said returning citizens without valid licenses can work through her agency to get them back.
“This helps when the person has been depending on family and friends for rides to work,” Tablack said, adding this situation often is stressful and unreliable. That might contribute to job loss.
She continued that some returning citizens, before their incarceration, had higher-paying jobs, but upon being released, haven’t been able to secure a job with a similar salary. “We work with the client to have the child support right-sized,” Tablack added.
Simmons said many returning citizens “don’t know to clean up the mess” they’ve made of their lives and with their families. The conference, she said, will offer practical information in areas such as legal aid, counseling, finances, housing and transportation.
Tablack added that “all of the partners will be there,” providing easy access to services.
Burney said he’s already received calls about the conference. “The callers have so much gratitude,” he said. “They want to be educated about what’s available so they can help themselves.”
The Rev. Mr. Peterson said the number of returning citizens reflects the need of such an event. He cited 2013 figures noting 618 returning citizens in Mahoning County, 144 in Trumbull County and 102 in Columbiana County.
Simmons noted that returning citizens “have many barriers” to overcome, but helping them benefits the community in the long run.
She said job training, placement and mentoring offered through agencies may deter a returning citizen from repeating criminal behavior and help them become a contributing member of the community.
The promoters said many take food, housing, clothing and transportation for granted. But for returning citizens, these are hurdles the conference will address.
Though the returning citizen may be the one with the record, Burney said, his or her family also has suffered. “There are resources for families affected,” he said.
Burney emphasized the situation for returning citizens “is a process” and “not an overnight fix.”
Mr. Peterson has been involved in returning citizens’ “re-entry process” since 2002. CCE offers programs to help returning citizens rebuild their lives and provides mentoring for them and children of incarcerated parents.
“The collaboration on the project is a milestone in the city,” Mr. Peterson said. “It’s providing concrete information in a hands-on way.”