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New program helps released prisoners establish
a support system to build their confidence

By Yvonne Lopez-Morton

Since this spring, Hope for a New Tomorrow has made it possible for men and women previously incarcerated and in transition to have access to a support system that helps them strengthen their ties to the community and increase their confidence.

As a collaboration between Goodwill Industries and Spokane County community agencies, the program offers volunteer mentors to people in Spokane area work release centers.

Anna Gonzales

Anna Gonzales

“Ninety-five percent of prison inmates re-enter our communities and two-thirds of them return to prison,” said Anna Gonzales, Hope for a New Tomorrow’s program manager. “In Spokane, more than 2,000 people are released from jail each year.  One in two men and two in three women will return to prison.

“We’re building this program from the ground up,” Anna said. “We know mentoring works for children, and we need to see how it works for adults,”

The Spokane Goodwill was one of 50 sites chosen from 483 applicants to host the transitional program and only one of three Goodwills in the nation in 2010. 

“Having a criminal record is like a scarlet letter,” Ann said. “The stigma is that these are all bad people. Many come from a cycle of poverty and need support systems that keep them from falling back.”

She explained that Hope for a New Tomorrow recruits mentors who will be a positive influence in the lives of the participants and be “their cheerleaders.” 

Her team includes Dezmon Cole who recruits and prepares mentors and Dawn Yarbrough who does the matches.

While the program is open to adults 18 years and older, she said the average age of participants is in their mid-20s to 30s.

Both mentees and mentors undergo screening that includes a personal interview before they are accepted and matched. In addition,  both are required to complete a written application and interest survey. Mentors must have a valid ID and complete and pass a national criminal history background check, but a criminal past man not prohibit someone from being a mentor, Anna said.

Mentees attend a one-and-a-half hour training session before being matched and a one-hour session monthly followed by an hour activity with their mentors. Topics are secure, safe and affordable housing, work readiness, self-management, personal relationship development and education.

Mentors must attend a three-hour training session with topics that include the criminal justice system, effective mentoring practices, community transitional services, general guidelines and procedures. They also attend one-hour monthly trainings followed by an hour with their mentee.

Matches are based on gender, common interest, compatibility of personalities and geographic proximity. Participants are matched for one year and required to visit with each other at least six hours a month.

“We have already seen transformations in initial interviews with mentees who enter sad and shy, and end talking openly and even laughing,” Anna said.  “In most cases one mistake led them to where they are and they feel like they have been frozen in time.”

The program has 14 matched pairs, but still needs more male mentors.

“These relationships have resulted in big changes,” she said. “We have seen more self esteem and confidence and more motivation to earn a GED and pursue more education.”

“Our mentors are also transformed and are great advocates for our program,” she said. “They celebrate their mentee’s victories like reconnecting with children, finding a job or getting a promotion or having a girlfriend.”

Anna said the benefits for mentees is that they not only have one-on-one support in a time of change in their lives, but have a sounding board for issues and can receive constructive feedback and advice from their mentors.

One outcome that helps mentees is for them to develop personal statements, which reveal their past and how they want to move forward. They can attach the statement to job applications and take them to job interviews.

“These are open and honest personal assessments they want to share,” she said.

Anna’s own commitment to the program comes from a professional and volunteer career that has focused on serving others.

Born in Fresno, Calif, she moved to Spokane in 1995 sight unseen looking for opportunities that led to jobs at the American Cancer Society, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and the Greater Spokane Incorporated.

Before joining Goodwill’s staff last October, Anna served as Gonzaga University’s student activity coordinator and the multi-cultural coordinator at Unity House.

Her commitment to social justice issues has included involvement on the Task Force on Human Relations, Unity in the Community, Institute for Action Against Hate, Hispanic Business Professional Association and African-American and Hispanic graduation events.

“I can’t be like Martin Luther King, Jr. and change the world,” she said, “but I can try to help change my corner of the world.”

Anna, who received her bachelor’s degree from California State University in Fresno and master’s from Gonzaga, grew up Catholic.

“I had open parents who encouraged spirituality,” Ann said. ”I ask guidance from God to help me make the community a better place, and God has put me where I need to be here at Goodwill.”

For information, call 344-0161.


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