By CHARLIE MATHEWS
MANITOWOC (AP) - For convicted drug dealer _____ and child sex abuser _____, Circles of Support is a lifesaving program they believe can help prevent them from going back to prison.
"Circles is mentoring for your life guiding you in the right direction," _____, released from prison last April, said after a recent weekly meeting at the Salvation Army of Manitowoc County. It offers the program in partnership with Goodwill North Central Wisconsin.
"If it wasn't for this program and the Salvation Army, I don't know where I'd be or what I'd be doing," said _____, who works several days a week at its pantry on Ninth Street. "My best friends and family are here."
Among them is Lt. Jeff Olson. "When these folks are coming out of prison or jail, they don't have a lot of support," said the Corps officer. "We look to help the whole person ... helping them to find jobs, a place to live, the right friends, reconcile with family ... many have destroyed what should be good relationships."
_____ got teary-eyed when talking with his mentor, Jerry Schubring, that one relationship he's repairing is with one of his three children, a daughter he hadn't seen for years.
"I want to raise my kids to know what dignity and integrity are, to have self-respect and self-love, and, most importantly, to have a life that will endure all adversity," _____, 33, said.
"You can't give up on a person," said Schubring, 72, who knew _____ before he was imprisoned, introducing the ex-offender and daughter to Emanuel United Methodist Church in Two Rivers where they were baptized.
"I stuck with him all the while when he went to prison, accepted his phone calls just about every week," said Schubring, who added he's "gotten hooked" on serving as a mentor with Circles of Support.
"It gives you a lot of pleasure seeing young fellows like _____ try to make a change in their life ... prison is not doing anything for them," said Schubring, an accountant before retiring.
He said _____ is working hard on turning his life around. "It is hard for those with drug problems to stay clean the rest of their life, they re-offend so easy ...we want to keep them stay clean, out of prison," Schubring said.
"To see lives being healed is huge for a mentor," Olson said. "You put in a lot of time with an individual, mentoring them, helping them with action plans and tasks. Seeing them get back to being a viable member of society, as a mentor there is great joy to see that."
Olson said mentors need to not view it as a defeat if participants violate parole and end up back in jail. "We are going to help this person again, not give up on them," he said.
The Manitowoc Salvation Army post began a Prison After Care program seven years ago with the same goals as the Circles of Support programming developed about two years ago with Goodwill Industries, which has a grant from the state Department of Corrections.
Olson said Goodwill has given the Manitowoc group training on how to be good mentors. It can also offer practical help like paying for special work boots if needed, or paying for books if the ex-offender is back in the classroom.
The Manitowoc Circles of Support has some 20 participants with local corrections agents strong supporters, encouraging involvement by parolees. Olson said more mentors are needed to be able to provide one-on-one counseling and support to "help participants stay on the straight and narrow, get their lives back together."
Gina Jensen became a mentor in September. "I get to love people and serve them," said Jensen, a member of Lighthouse Church Family in Two Rivers. "We'd love to have more people who can love the person and overlook the crime."
"Everybody deserves many changes in life," said Kathy Strickland, who attends Faith Church in Manitowoc, and went to the Gulf Coast several times in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as part of disaster relief efforts.
"It is a special gift to serve God ... I have a heart for these people," Strickland said. "Each life has value, it is not up to me to judge."
What would she say to prospective mentors? "You would be so blessed ... you get back more than you give," Strickland said. "Your heart would melt."
Darlene Wellner, a longtime volunteer, said mentors do have to be open and non-judgmental, willing to listen, but that doesn't mean they don't call them out for inappropriate actions.
"You are there to always encourage them, stress that hope is always there and that God is part of this whole thing, too," Wellner said. For those ex-offenders who grew up without a faith life, "it helps them to feel they can have a personal relationship with God and to also understand the values that come with that."
Before retirement, Wellner worked for Lakeshore Community Action Program as youth services director. She welcomes the involvement of lay volunteers with varied backgrounds who can provide links to different resources to help the ex-offender.
Kevin Mueller is the field supervisor in the Department of Corrections office in Manitowoc and Jennifer Zick is one of his probation and parole agents.
He said the ex-offenders may pay more attention to the guidance offered by the volunteers from Circles of Support rather than his-her paid parole officer.
"It is nice to have a group that helps me in my job," Zick said. "They take my people to the Job Center, get a library card."
"I can talk with the mentors, tell them what this guy could benefit from, 'can you help me out,'" Zick said. "We have the same goals, holding that person accountable ... giving them a positive place to go during the week instead of hanging out with friends" who may have been part of a destructive group of acquaintances."
"We need the community's help to do our job," Mueller said. "This program is a perfect example of that collaboration ... has certainly had a positive impact on the community. Manitowoc is a better place because of what Circles of Support has done."
_____, 38, said Circles of Support is helping him feel better about himself. He is trying to find work to help support his son that he said he has custody of, created through the relationship with the underage female that resulted in two years prison time. He was released in October and joined Circles.
"I'm not proud of what I did ... people have to understand that sometimes just because you are a sex offender ... doesn't mean you are the worst of the worst," said _____, who earned a one-year technical diploma in fundamentals of building maintenance and construction while housed at Oshkosh Correctional Institution.
_____ said he is a "great worker," had a couple long-term factory jobs and now just needs a chance to demonstrate his worth.
"When you're not working, you have time on your hands, there is the possibility of re-offending," _____ said.
He said Circles of Support is a critical component of re-entering society. "The mentors provide you with ideas for jobs, ways to talk with employers," _____ said. "They point out your good qualities, are willing to give their time to do that."
_____ has been in out of prison three times for drug offenses and arson. He believes with help from Circles of Support there won't be a fourth time. "This is the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.