Grantee Rebuilds Lives and Reshapes Futures
As the day of her release from prison drew near, Heather should have been excited and relieved. Instead, the Indiana native was fearful as she faced life ‘outside’ without a job, family, or a place to live. A friend convinced the 27-year-old to apply to the transitional program through St. Leonard’s Ministries, a health and social service agency founded in 1954 to help ex-offenders reintegrate into the community. But Heather had her doubts.
“My friend called it a halfway house, a homeless shelter,” she says. “I mean, you know what the average person thinks about a shelter – bugs, boarded up windows, people coming and going – but I had no other choice.”
St. Leonard’s exceeded her expectations, beginning with a warm welcome when she arrived. “I felt like ‘this is where I’m supposed to be,’” Heather says. “It felt like home.” And soon it would transform her life completely.
St. Leonard’s provides residential services, case management, and employment services for formerly incarcerated men and women. Its Barlow Center offers educational programs from adult high school to culinary and construction training programs. Participants regularly defy the odds: in Illinois, more than 50% of male and 35% of female ex-offenders return to prison within three years. For male ex-offenders who complete St. Leonard’s program, only 16% recidivate. The recidivism rate for women is impressive at only 5%.
Inspired by the successes of the advanced culinary program graduates and participant interest in pursuing careers in the construction field, St. Leonard’s developed an Advanced Construction Skills Training program; in 2018, We Raise Foundation awarded a GrantsPlus grant to support it.
St. Leonard’s Executive Director Erwin Mayer says that adding this advanced program will help participants thrive. “Finding a good job, a living-wage job, goes a long way towards eliminating the need to commit additional crimes just to survive,” Mayer says.
During her 20-month stay at St. Leonard’s, Heather completed the Barlow Center’s 150-hour Basic Construction Skills Training Program. “My instructor was phenomenal! Not only did I learn the building maintenance skills, but he taught us life skills,” she says. “He was awesome.”
Today, Heather is on staff at St. Leonard’s, working on plumbing and electrical issues in six buildings. Her former instructor, Darrell Robinson, is now her boss. She loves her job, but she loves the people the most.
“I’ll stay after hours just to talk to some of the ladies at Grace House – especially the ladies new to the residential program,” Heather says. “I tell them it’s not going to be easy but it’s definitely worth all the work that they’re going to have to do.”
Mayer feels that their tight-knit community contributes to their success. “No one is judged when they come to us. All that matters is that you have a current need: you need a place to stay and you need access to services,” he says. “It’s a place where people care about you and can guide you on that roller coaster ride that happens when you’re released from prison.”
In May 2018, Heather moved out of Grace House into her own apartment; most weekends find her visiting her family back in Indiana. “St. Leonard’s gave me the foundation I needed to straighten out my life, get my family back, get employment, and get housing,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
Thank you for supporting St. Leonard’s Ministries as they walk with people in their time of need to rebuild lives and reshape futures.