Introducing Hope Prison Outreach
It started with a realization: more than half the homeless men at Hope Ministries had at some point or another served time behind bars – some for just a short time, others for more than half their lives.
The realization formed into an idea: could Hope Ministries expand on what it was already doing to help former inmates? Was there a way to be intentional about reaching men leaving prison?
The idea became a vision: former inmates from local prisons finding the stability, accountability and recovery support they need inside the doors of Hope Ministries.
Today that vision has bloomed into reality: Hope Prison Outreach.
"We knew the need was out there. In fact, we've been helping former inmates for years," said Cole Lindholm, director of men's ministries at Hope Ministries.
Turning vision into action
It was in July of 2007 that Hope Ministries' Board of Directors heard of the increasing need for an outreach designed specifically for former prison inmates. Board member Warren Dobbertin listened intently.
"I was snagged," he admits today.
At the onset, the focus of Warren, Cole and case manager Bart Logan, was to reach out to prison personnel.
"The idea was to build relationships with the prisons and jails, including the prison in Newton and the Polk County Jail, as well as the Iowa Parole Board, the Fifth Judicial District, the public defender, attorney's office and the local police departments and county sheriff's office," Cole recounts.
And all three – Warren, Cole and Bart – began the three-month process to gain regular admission into Newton Correctional Facility. By spring 2008, Warren was holding weekly Bible studies for men and Cole and Bart were giving presentations about Hope Ministries.
"We wanted to form relationships with prisoners and get the word out about who we are and what we do, so that when they get out, they know Hope Ministries is an option for them," says Cole.
Why Hope Ministries?
"Once they get out of prison, a lot of men have nowhere to go. In many cases, they've burned all their bridges with family members and friends," explains Bart. "And for many of them, it's not a good idea to go back to their hometown with all the same temptations. They need a fresh start."
Hope Prison Outreach is meant to give them that fresh start, by offering inmates the kind of structure and accountability they need after years in prison. While in prison, inmates are told where to go and what to do 24 hours a day. After years of incarceration, many find it difficult to make simple decisions and often end up returning to lives of crime and addiction.
"Jail is a controlled environment with someone telling you what you can and can't do every day. It's a big step for an inmate to get out and suddenly be accountable only to himself," Cole says.
Cole describes it as a tall staircase. Prison, with its 24/7 structure, is at the top. Re-entry and being out on one's own is at the bottom. Hope Ministries, Cole says, is right in the middle.
"We offer accountability and structure while also teaching men the tools they need to reenter society as productive and responsible citizens," he says.
And in addition to food, shelter, clothing, recovery support, program classes, educational development, job skills training…Hope Prison Outreach offers something more: the peace and love that come from knowing Christ.
"Some men come here with faith, others don't. But our hope is that God's love becomes a reality in their lives while they're here," says Bart.
Currently, Cole, Bart and Warren do presentations in local prisons about once a quarter – meeting with groups of inmates, sharing about Hope Ministries and encouraging men who are interested to contact Hope Ministries.
"We ask them to send us a letter expressing their interest several months before they're scheduled to be released," says Bart.
Already they've received dozens of letters and seen several men make the transition from the prison cell to Hope Ministries.
"We want to identify men who are ready for change, who really want to start fresh. Some may see it as an opportunity to get out a few months early, and that's not why we're doing this," says Cole.
Like other men in Hope Ministries' recovery programs, former inmates begin their recovery process at Hope Ministries' Bethel Mission men's emergency shelter. After a few weeks there, they move on to our Door of Faith men's recovery center, where they spend up to a year living with other men in the midst of recovery.
One of those men, Rick, is currently in our STAR (spiritual training and recovery) long-term recovery program.
"Rick has worked almost every day he's been out of prison. He saved for a vehicle and insurance, and bought a pickup truck! It's not pretty, but it runs just fine," Warren grins.
Rick and the other former inmates currently at Hope Ministries are doing well, says Bart.
"They're very motivated. They don't want to go back to the life they were living before," he says.
The vision of Hope Ministries staff members is to see Hope Prison Outreach continue to grow and eventually include volunteers and area churches. Already, Warren's home church has become involved with church members helping one of the men currently at Hope Ministries following his release from prison.
"They've really taken him in, provided support and accountability, as well as tangible things like helping him find a job, a vehicle and other needs," says Cole. "We'd like to see more churches help out in this way."
"We definitely have room to grow," adds Bart. "We know we can't meet every single need that's out there, but if we can impact a few guys' lives, then we're pleased. This isn't something brand new. We've been helping men who've been incarcerated for years. We're just doing it intentionally now."
At its core, Hope Prison Outreach is about being Christ to inmates – and recognizing Christ in those inmates. And, says Cole, "When they leave prison and come to Hope Ministries, they know they have friends here who really care."