|Exodus Transitional Community: A place of hope and healing.|
As you climb the steep flight of stairs into the Exodus Transitional Community, leaving the street sounds of East Harlem behind, you are unsure of what’s behind the big white door. An organization that serves men and women who are formerly incarcerated conjures up images of a parole office with high windows, government tiles and uncomfortable metal folding chairs. But instead, as you cross the threshold into the reception area you are immersed in warmth.
You cannot help but be struck by the colors and the gentle surprise of music playing softly. The place buzzes with activity amidst immaculate wood floors and track lighting. The mustard yellow walls are decorated with contemporary pieces and the furniture is black leather. The coffee table is filled with recent magazines, periodicals and condoms – there are literally bowls of condoms everywhere as if to remind you that this is not your average office.
Rafael Romero, receptionist, says “hola rayito de sol” and I smile, I am radiant-- I am home.
And that is how each visit begins. I come to life when I leave my corner office in downtown Brooklyn with a view of the NYC skyline to come uptown. I am here to witness people beating all the odds and overcoming barriers to live normal lives again. I am here to see a new definition of success.
Exodus is a book in the bible that speaks of a journey to the “promised land” and this organization was founded by a visionary man on his own journey. It’s a faith based model, so all meetings, meals and conversations begin with a pause to give thanks--but it’s far from a church! There are battles and tears; drama and dysfunction – just like in El Diario’s newsroom.
Many clients, they are called “participants” here, are men, but we are seeing more women due to recent outreach efforts. Participants are not sitting in waiting as in other offices, here they are engaged. Some are on laptops scrolling through job listings, some are reviewing resumes with their coaches. Still others are practicing a cool walk in their new suits ready to go out on interviews or reporting back on their interview experiences.
Exodus Transitional Community (ETC) has lived in relative obscurity in East Harlem for over a decade. Yet, last year ETC saw about 380 participants come through the doors of their new home on Third Avenue – twenty blocks away from their previous location in the basement of a church. Of those, an estimated dozen went back to prison. By local and national standards that rate of what is known as “recidivism” is unmatched. To some it’s incredible, to others unbelievable, but to the ETC staff it’s not a surprise. They believe that if you treat people as family, nurture and hold their hands through the difficult reentry period, you can effectively “change lives and restore hope”.
The mission statement is “to provide supportive services to formerly incarcerated men and women in order to help them reintegrate into their communities thereby achieving social and economic well being and breaking the cycle of recidivism.”
But while “recidivism” is the way that governments and funders measure success, I have seen something different at work in this East Harlem duplex. I call them miracles.
Staffers are dressed like corporate executives yet when planning an offsite meeting, Medina must remind “those who need permission from their parole officers” to “get paperwork done”. My face scrunches up in surprise and he laughs “that’s just to remind you where you are” he says. He expected me to bolt months ago, but I have also defied the odds.
I have met many heroes at Exodus over the past year. I met Jen Kwon on my first day there, after his 20 year sentence. He was emptying garbage cans as a volunteer and was very shy about all he did not know while fascinated by computers. In short time he became a search engine whiz and last month we said goodbye as he left ETC to start a new job – his first real opportunity as a supervisor for a construction site. With under a year of freedom, I watched Jen Kwon blossom, blend, painfully gyrate to hip hop and articulately lead us in prayer. Not for a minute did we ever imagine him returning to prison.
For us the measure of success goes beyond that. Success is getting your first job, being reunited with your family or buying your first cell phone or car. Success is leaving transitional housing or finding a soul mate. Success is being able to express -in some cases after four years – how prison changed you or how you no longer feel incarcerated.
I have walked up to participants and startled them with a smile or an embrace or just by saying good morning. People like me, don’t chit chat with people like them, I was told by David Delancy, a participant whose own story is a testament to how clueless society is about the prison experience.
I met Robert Santana, one of our IMPACT participants in a program I created with Julio, geared to career track candidates. I sent Santana for an interview and he called me to say “thanks, but to be honest with you, I don’t belong there in a corporate office. I can do construction”. After his 4 week internship at the NYC Health & Hospitals Corporation, Robert was offered a job for the summer and is working on permanent placement in a city hospital this fall. Wearing a suit each summer morning to his job at $15 an hour, Robert has emotionally grown into his 6’ 10 body. His biggest challenge now is not recidivism, it’s reconnecting with his kids.
And then there is Jean Coaxum, who cooks participant lunches to the sounds of Tina Turner and handles correspondence at the agency – responding to letters from those incarcerated throughout the state for the last five years. Ten weeks ago she enrolled in a groundbreaking project called La Nueva Vida where chef Alex Garcia trained ten participants in food prep and then hired most of them to work at the newly renovated Copacabana on 47th street. To see this woman, who did over 20 years in prison dressed in her new chef wear is inspiring, she is so brave.
I have come to this amazing organization on a journey of my own. It’s hard to remember now if I found Exodus or if it found me at the end of 2010 when I was in a deep funk about my 49th birthday. I was reflecting on how happy I was in 2007 when I picked up my cousin Andy from prison in Florida after his 16 years of incarceration. We spent a full two years in reentry mode and managed to survive without a guide book. We decided to write a guidebook which is a project in progress.
In a moment of morning meditation and clarity I realized I wanted to spend the next two decades working with the formerly incarcerated, with more Andy’s and their families. So I began to write a business plan and talk to people and eventually I met Julio Medina, creator of Exodus Transitional Community. To my surprise and chagrin he had put my business plan into action 11 years prior to my epiphany.
Rather than discourage me, Julio was excited about helping me test my theories while I helped him build social capital. Today I cannot imagine my life without his friendship. He is my reentry soul mate and I believe God brought us together to make giants of others.
The work that Exodus does is not about scale, it’s literally saving one life at a time. It is addressing the whole person, not just getting someone a job or a place to sleep but helping them be a better father, a better son, a better person. It is a mission to help others remake their lives as those who are in service struggle to redefine and reconstruct themselves as well.
Visit www.etcny.org to make volunteer and make a donation.