Virginia Cares Inc. Guides Ex-offenders as They Re-enter Society

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Anthony West has been on the inside, and now the program/training director for Roanoke-based Virginia Cares Inc. does what he can to help others avoid the same pitfalls when they are released from prison. West, a William Fleming graduate, works with ex-offenders who enroll in the Va Cares program, helping with emergency food and clothing, transportation assistance, help with obtaining ID cards, restoration of rights, employment seeking and interview skills, etc.

A support network of counselors and peers is also offered. Virginia Cares started as a TAP program under the auspices of Ted Edlich, “grew in to its own entity,” said West, and then was spun off.  Grants help fund the agency. West came over from TAP himself. He doesn’t hide what happened to him in the past or his criminal record.

“It made me who I am today,” he said.

Virginia Cares works all across the state from its home office in Roanoke at the Dumas Center on Henry Street, helping several thousand people “get their lives restarted,” according to the organization’s brochure. “The only thing we ask of our participants is their dedication to creating positive change in their lives,” it continues. The assistance offered by the non-profit (more than 30 years old) is free of charge. There are 12 Va Cares offices around the Commonwealth. At times, they go in to prisons and jails, preparing about-to-be-released inmates for what they can expect.

“A lot of times we get referrals from parole officers,” said West, who spent time in prison on drug charges. First and foremost many are looking for employment. “That will [help] get them situated on the right path,” said West, noting that aspects of the agency’s services have been more difficult in light of the recession. “There’s a lot of people lining up at McDonalds…or Wal-Mart, for jobs.”

West spent several stints in prison and was in for three years his last time around, getting out for good in 1996. For those that know little but life on the streets and easy money from drug dealing and the like, he says prisons don’t always provide the best atmosphere and preparation for what comes after release. That’s why so many return to prison and jail, according to West.

Virginia Cares is also part of a larger coalition, PAPIS, a statewide effort to assist ex-offenders.

“We try not to overlap each other’s boundaries [but] try to come together,” said West. Coming together also makes it easier to lobby for money at the General Assembly. “They know how important this program is.”

Executive Director Ann Fisher said the agency fights the image some have of ex-offenders, and is “not the most sympathetic of groups when it comes to funding. When we come up in a budget [cycle] against early childhood care monies or [funding] for disabled veterans … even if you talk culture and museum money – there’s more of a pull for that.” Many private foundations have reservations about providing funds. “We’re caught in the cross fire,” said Fisher, who has been with Virginia Cares for a decade.

Fisher said it is often difficult to work with ex-offenders who may have been in prison for many years.

“It’s hard to break their concept of who they should be. It’s very difficult to get them to adapt to the outside and make the changes.” Having someone like West on board, with his background, “is extremely valuable to me,” she said.

Va Cares prefers to help clients look for jobs with brighter futures, but “you have to crawl before you can walk,” notes West. He also talks to potential employers, “trying to sell our program,” to businesses so that they will consider hiring ex-cons. He offers himself as proof positive that some people can turn themselves around.

Last March, West was selected as one of 30 “Creative Connectors” by Roanoke City, a group that will brainstorm for a year on ways to make the valley a more attractive place to live and work.

Employment opportunities would have helped him the most when he was getting into trouble.

West speaks from experience, “I lived it, I know it.”

Va Cares will join with TAP to present Voices for the Vote on September 13 at Elmwood Park (1-4pm), a rally for rights restoration. Changing Virginia’s “felony disenfranchisement law,” that leaves many ex-offenders without voting rights is a focus. Speakers include 11th District Delegate Onzlee Ware. Contact Paige Hodges/Total Action Against Poverty at 345-6781 ext-4361 for more information. The local NAACP chapter, the Virginia Organizing Project and the Community Law Center at Oliver Hill House are also sponsors.

For more information, visit vacares.org.

By Gene Marrano
[email protected]