You wouldn’t think a college student, truck driver and a phlebotomist have much in common. But, Mary Washington-Louis, Lyndon Wright and Candace Colvin have shared some very important experiences.
They have all served time in prison.
They have all been released.
And they have all determined that they are not going to let their pasts define them.
When they were released, they didn’t have homes. They didn’t have jobs or cars. But thanks to TurnAround, a Catholic Charities program that, in partnership with MCC, assists parolees in reentering the community, these individuals have received job training or started on the path to a degree—and a better future.
Mary Louis-Washington: “I want to tell my story if it can help somebody, somewhere along the line.”
Mary, age 50, was released on March 27, 2011 after serving eleven and a half years. While still incarcerated, she earned her GED.
Mary was one of the first women to participate in the TurnAround program. (While there are twenty men’s prisons in Missouri, there are only two women’s prisons.) Beginning the program before her release, she corresponded by mail with her assigned mentor. As they worked together to help Mary develop a life plan, Mary knew that continuing her education would be key.
“I knew something had to change. I knew I wanted to go to Penn Valley,” said Mary.
When she was released, she spent six months in an outpatient facility, undergoing treatment for substance abuse. She lived for a time at Princess House, a transitional house for women. Between Princess House and Catholic Charities, she received all of her clothing and necessities.
When she was ready, her case manager at TurnAround helped her fill out a FAFSA. Before she knew it, she was diving in to college life.
The first year proved to be more than a challenge—it was out-and-out culture shock. Mary found herself struggling to become accustomed to life outside of prison, and she had made the mistake that so many first-time college students make: trying to take on too large a course load. She had enrolled in IT courses, thinking only of getting a job that paid well in a high-demand field, not considering whether or not it actually suited her.
Also like many college students, she struggled with finances. She discovered the agony of waiting out the lag between financial aid approval and the actual arrival of funds. Her first semester, she failed one class and withdrew from another.
But that first semester taught her valuable lessons about herself and her capabilities.
She was not willing to give up. Enrolling for her second semester, she decided to take it slower. She sought services offered through MCC, including advising and Project Success.
Now she is pursuing her associate’s in applied science in human services. Because of her past, she thought about specializing in substance abuse counseling, but she found that too limiting. Social work will give her a wide range of opportunities to help others.
Currently, Mary is in her second year at MCC. She now has her own apartment, located very close to the Penn Valley campus.
To talk to her now, you would never know that Mary had that rocky first semester. The campus has become more than familiar to her—it has become like home. “MCC is awesome,” said Mary. “I’m so grateful for their programs. I’m especially grateful for the people at Penn Valley—I know everybody now, everybody is always so willing to help. Penn Valley feels like home.”
In addition to being a student, Mary is a member of TurnAround’s Speaker’s Bureau, where she shares her remarkable story at community events.
Lyndon Wright: “You have to be motivated.”
Lyndon, age 49, was released on June 14, 2012 after nine years in prison.
As a condition of his release, he received substance abuse counseling through Dismas House. But other than that, he did not want help initially– from TurnAround or any other program. He wanted to be independent, to find his own way. Lyndon was not unskilled. He’d had HVAC training from a technical college, as well as his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and five years’ experience as a driver before he went to prison.
But finding a job with a felony on his record proved daunting.
“So many companies, when they find out you have a felony, the conversation’s over,” said Lyndon. His CDL license had expired while he was in prison, which would require him to take a refresher course. Lyndon was also having trouble finding a place to live.
So at first, he went to TurnAround to get a bus pass and to get help finding an apartment.
It was there that he heard about MCC’s CDL program. It was a 2 ½ – 3 hour bus ride from his apartment to the MCC-Blue River campus every day for classes, but Lyndon stuck it out. TurnAround helped cover the cost of course fees and exams.
Within just six weeks, Lyndon had not only gotten his CDL license back, he was first in his class. By October 2012, he had gotten a job at Liberty Fruit Company in Kansas City, Kan., which is known to be a “felon-friendly” company. Lyndon has a regular route to Omaha.
And he has earned enough money to buy himself a car, which he has already paid off.
Candace Colvin: “I didn’t know where I was headed.”
Candace, age 51, was released on Sept. 20, 2011.
While still in prison, Candace received substance abuse treatment. She had her high school diploma, but she knew she when she got out, she was going to need more if she wanted career options.
Like Mary, she began working with Catholic Charities before her release.
When she got out, she faced some health issues, including knee surgery. As a condition of her release, she cannot drive until 2018, which meant that any job or job training she sought would have to be on the bus line.
Candace did have some advantages: she had family support and a place to live. Her parents let her move in with them, along with her seventeen-year-old son, who is a junior at North Kansas City High School.
Like Lyndon, she quickly discovered that finding a job was going to be difficult.
“I looked everywhere. No one would hire me,” said Candace.
Last spring, she enrolled in Certified Nursing Assistant courses at MCC. Later that summer, she came back for additional training in phlebotomy.
Just before Christmas, she got a job at CSL Plasma. She works as a screener, taking blood samples. She has also worked in reception as well as a trainer—the position offers many cross-training opportunities, and opportunities for growth. Candace couldn’t be more thrilled. She has already received one raise, and anticipates another in the next year.
In the past 18 months, over 50 men and women have enrolled in MCC courses through the TurnAround program.
TurnAround started in 1999 and was initially funded entirely by donations. Since then, the program has secured several major grants, allowing them to serve hundreds of clients per year across four counties. In 2012, over 2,000 participants received services.
With the help of volunteers and a few dedicated employees, as well as community partnerships like the one with MCC, TurnAround provides participants with the basics: food, hygiene, clothing and housing, as well as emergency assistance, helping participants secure bus passes, identification and prescriptions.
From there, they assist clients with larger concerns such as transportation, job placement, job training and education.
Program Manager Rita Flynn spent 35 years as a parole officer.
“Programs like these are what keep our community safer,” said Flynn. “Ninety-four percent of our clients never go back to prison. It only makes sense.”
For more information about the TurnAround program, visit the Catholic Charities website.