Project RETURN

Stay Current with the latest Project RETURN News & Events

Video: Monte Mabra directs I Want a Father for Christmas
Video: Senator Harris accepts 2013 Don Bein Service Award
Video: Project RETURN thanks Senator Nikiya Harris
Video: Monte Mabra accepts 2013 Elijah O'Neal Excellence Award

2012 Banquet speech by Miss America
Highlights from 2012 Fashion Show
Table of the Saints: 2012 Elijah O'Neal Excellence Award
Gerhard and Lucy Fischer: 2012 Don Bein Service Award
Scenes from Celebrate The Return 2012
Read about the 2012 Golf Tournament
Learn about the Vow to Succeed Program

Monti accepts 2011 Elijah O'Neal Excellence Award
Rob accepts 2011 Don Bein Service Award
A client's view of the 2011 Annual Banquet
Reflections on the 2011 Annual Banquet
Pictures from the 2011 Annual Banquet

Learn about the The New Man Project
Read the Employment Update
Read about the 2011 Golf Tournament

34th Annual Celebrate the Return

news Apr 2014 pg 1
news Apr 2014 pg 1
news Apr 2014 pg 1

Board Member Profile: Elijah O'Neal

Project RETURN is celebrating 34 years of ministry this year, but we may not have made it past the first few years without the vision of a forward-thinking Board of Directors in 1981. Today two original members of the Board of Directors still serve on this vision casting body: Pastor Joseph Ellwanger and Elijah O’Neal.

Elijah is originally from Peoria, IL. He moved to Milwaukee around 1962 or 1963. He was lured to Milwaukee by employment and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, Elijah was sentenced and convicted of a felony early in his stay in Wisconsin. After a period of incarceration, Elijah vowed to become a positive member of the community. He received his Associates Degree in Industrial Supervision at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Soon, he was hired by Bucyrus Erie on Milwaukee’s south side.

“After I was released from prison I was working at Bucyrus Erie. After working there for two years I was promoted into a supervisor position, the first African American supervisor in production for the company. I was introduced to a woman named Jan Cummings while I was on parole. Jan found out I was working for Bucyrus Erie as a supervisor. She asked if she could refer some individuals on parole to me for employment and mentoring. I agreed and that began my work in prison ministry. I became involved with the Benedict Center. After a while a co-worker of mine Earl Anderson and I were talking about organizations in Milwaukee. He introduced me to Priscilla Franklin who was a member of Cross Lutheran Church. She spoke about an initiative that was beginning at Cross Lutheran Church called Project RETURN.”

Elijah had made a vow to himself to do whatever he could to help his community. He recognized first-hand the struggles of re-entry. He provided vision of how an organization can help mentor a person returning from incarceration. He has never shied away from doing what he believes is right.

“I have worked with a few men through the years, providing a mentoring relationship for them. The young men came to me from family, church groups, community based organizations. One individual I worked with, Anthony, came to me from his aunt when he was 17 or 18 years old. Anthony was a handful. His parents were separated. He was staying with his mother when I came to know him. It took a little while, but he did mellow out a bit. At that point I was able to get him a job as a chipper. I have known Anthony for over 30 years now. He is now an ordained pastor and I could not be prouder of him.”

Elijah has taught us so much at Project RETURN and has personally mentored hundreds of men through the years. Asked why he felt called to this work his answer was, as is everything Elijah does, straight to the point. “Society too often thinks incarceration is the answer to corrective behavior. I felt I was called to offer some of my insights and life lessons to someone else, to help them achieve their goals.”

Rev. Joseph Ellwanger publishes autobiographical memoir:
“Strength for the Struggle”

by Rev. Mark Thompson

With these words, Pastor Joe calls all of us to continue the struggle of fighting what the Apostle Paul calls “the principalities and powers” of this world. Most who read this Project RETURN newsletter are, of course, familiar with Rev. Joseph Ellwanger. As the longtime pastor of Cross Lutheran in Milwaukee, Pastor Joe helped begin the organization and continues to be an integral part of the on-going ministry and success of Project RETURN. The story and ministry of Project RETURN is featured prominently in the book (pg 206-221).

This book is more than a walk through history. It is a blueprint for continuing to engage the principalities and powers of today through community organizing, partnerships and always a bold faith in Jesus and God. Given the continued disproportionate incarceration of African American men throughout the United States, Pastor Joe’s call to action throughout the book ring loud and clear today. The description of the background to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is as relevant for white congregations and Christians given the issues of today as it was in 1963:

I know that for some congregations and pastors, the quietism and silence came from a failure to empathize with African Americans, a failure to see how deep and profound a hurt it truly was for an African American man . . . to be called “boy” with all the other daily indignities (pg 280).

It remains difficult today for many of the same congregations in suburban Milwaukee, and elsewhere in the United States, to empathize with incarcerated individuals or to acknowledge the sin of racism and white privilege permeates every social institution and often guides foreign military policy.

I have often sat at tables with Pastor Joe, knowing that if he was putting his energy in a certain cause, it was worthwhile indeed. Many of us are grateful for the energy he and his wife Joyce put into this book, and into a life of faith, passion and justice. Every individual and congregation seeking to follow Jesus should engage this book in order to find strength for today’s struggles.

“Strength for the Struggle” is published by Henschel Haus Publishing, Inc., and can be purchased online at When ordering at checkout, enter the code RET to have $2.00 of your purchase donated to Project RETURN.

Board Member Profile: Rodney Evans

Continuing the newsletter series started last quarter, this quarter’s Board Member Profile is Board President Rodney Evans.

Rodney is originally from Cassopolis, MI. At a very young age his father died. A little while later his mother remarried and moved the family to Milwaukee where his stepfather had just been hired as the pastor of a church. Unfortunately, Rodney had his run-ins with the law and at the age of 17 he was incarcerated for a non-violent offense. This would lead to a pattern of recidivism over the next 21 years. Every time Rodney got close to completing his probation he would be revocated due to a violation.

In 2004 Rodney was referred to Project RETURN by his probation officer for a 12 week AODA Treatment Group. He found the groups, facilitated by Clem Richardson, to be inspirational. He completed his 12 week program and continued to attend groups for the next two-plus years. After attending groups regularly for so long, Clem and other staff at Project RETURN encouraged Rodney to become more active in the community. Rodney began speaking to local organizations and church groups about his experiences being incarcerated and what he needed to make a successful re-entry. In 2010, Rodney was invited to attend a board meeting for Project RETURN with a group of potential new board members. Rodney agreed to join the board. He has served as the president for the last two years.

“Because of my background, I spent a lot of time destroying and hurting,” Rodney said when being interviewed for this article. “Today I have the opportunity to clean up and heal, both on the outside and inside. My past helps me to see the truth. In the past I made decisions on lies, now I make decisions on the truths I see.”

“My hopes are that we accomplish being a force in the social justice arena in our city, our prisons…being a force for justice in our community. That is my long term goal. Short term goal for Project RETURN is to increase the number of people we reach in our assisting.”

Under Rodney leadership Project RETURN is working toward these goals and making a difference every day.

I Want a Father for Christmas

Senator Nikiya Harris accepts award

Project RETURN thanks Senator Nikiya Harris

Monte Mabra accepts award

Miss America speaking at 2012 Annual Banquet

Fashion Show Highlights from 2012 Annual Banquet

2012 Elijah O’Neal Award of Excellence Recipient

The Table of the Saints

We are Charles Hampton and William Harrell, members of the Board of Directors of Project RETURN, but also members of the Table of the Saints. We were honored that the Table of the Saints were the recipients of the 2012 Elijah O’Neal Award of Excellence presented at this year’s Celebrate the Return. We first wish to thank those that made that day possible.

For those of you who are unaware of who the Table of the Saints are, we are a diverse group of men committed to saving our youth from the prison system. The Table of the Saints is made up mostly of former offenders, most of us spent time incarcerated. Some of us spent many years there. We were able to get the treatment we needed upon re-entering the community. Most of the Table of the Saints have gained employment. We, through the support of each other and the community, have all become productive members of the community.

We want more former offenders to have that chance in our community. We assist those that have been incarcerated and in the process of returning to their communities, families and friends. We help them in making a positive, permanent adjustment. We do this by coming together and sharing with one another. This is not about joining a church, it’s about helping you get a personal relationship with our creator. We do speaking engagements where it may help, such as schools, group homes, transitional facilities, etc.

The Table of the Saints supports treatment alternatives and the 11X15 campaign because we know firsthand that they work in changing lives. We have been very active in MICAH’s “Ban the Box” campaign and the changing in leadership at the County Correctional Facility-South. We have received two awards for these efforts in the past two years, but we work on this because it is a way to use our experiences to make the world a better place for all.

Thank you again for your support. If you would like to learn more about the Table of the Saints, please check out our website:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
you anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over – Psalm 23:5

2012 Don Bein Service Award Recipients

Gerhard & Lucy Fischer

Gerhard and Lucy Fischer were awarded the Don Bein Service award for their years of service to the community and also Project RETURN. Gerhard & Lucy were there from the beginning of Project RETURN, helping, listening, supporting, and advocating on behalf of our mission and our clients. They have supported our mission and distributed our pamphlets at every opportunity. They have been active volunteers in their duo church memberships at Redemption Lutheran and Mt. Zion Lutheran Church.

Through their efforts Project RETURN was invited to talk to the adult education session at Mt Zion and then we were invited to become part of their Christmas has a Heart giving project. We were then invited to do a pulpit presentation about helping ex- offenders and how their community can help.

Gerhard and Lucy have opened many doors for us throughout the Milwaukee faith community. All of these opportunities are still happening today because of their efforts.

Gerhard, after much help from Lucy, agreed to serve on the Board of Directors and gave us five years of wisdom, caring and guidance. Project RETURN and indeed the greater Milwaukee area are a better place because of the work of Gerhard and Lucy.

Scenes from Celebrate the RETURN 2012

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

2012 Annual Golf Tournament

Beautiful weather and a green, luscious course were the backdrop to the 4th Annual Project RETURN Golf Outing held on June 7, 2012, at Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee, WI.

After last year’s successful partnership with Elmbrook Church, Project RETURN set out to host this year’s event by ourselves. Lofty goals were set for the event and while not all the goals were met, everyone involved agreed that a good time was had.

Project RETURN offered hole sponsorship opportunities to local businesses and organizations as a chance to advertise and support our mission. Thirty-two hole sponsors were secured and another sponsored our driving range.

Donations were also accepted for our raffle, which resulted in a nice spread of opportunities after the golf.

Many new faces attended the event and were witness to an inspiring testimonial from Andre Brown about what led him to prison, what he faced upon his re-entry, and how he came to Project RETURN.

Project RETURN would like to thank Western Lakes Golf Club for being such gracious hosts, Evan & Issac Hruska for assisting with the event, Jennifer Hruska for taking pictures, all the hole sponsors and those who donated to the raffle, and especially those of you who attended the event and heard about our ministry. We truly could not do what we do without you.

Finally, preparations are underway for the 5th Annual Golf Outing to be held on June 6, 2013, at Western Lakes Golf Club. Mark your calendars today!

Monti accepts 2011 Elijah O'Neal Excellence Award at Annual Banquet

Rob accepts 2011 Don Bein Service Award at Annual Banquet

Partnering with Vow to Succeed Program

Innovative Program Helps Youth and Adults Focus on Healthy Relationship Building

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded a $1.7 million grant renewable for up to three years to continue and expand the successful Vow to Succeed Program through the Center for Self-Sufficiency. This program was first developed in 2006 through a 5-year, $5.5 million federal grant in support of the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which was established to create recognition and awareness of the importance of positive relationships through outreach and community educational programming.

“We are very pleased to receive the funding for our continued efforts in this area,” says Angela Turner, president and CEO of the Center for Self Sufficiency. “The work we do, in collaboration with our partner agencies in the greater Milwaukee area, provides essential support for youth and adults in incorporating healthy relationships and marriages into their lives and fostering economic stability.”

The Center for Self-Sufficiency works with faith- and community-based organizations as well as schools to provide classes to youth, singles and married couples in the areas of healthy relationships, marriage preparation, marriage enhancement and teen pregnancy prevention.

“Project RETURN is very excited to be a partner in this continuing initiative,” says Wendel Hruska, Executive Director of Project RETURN. “The partnership and collaboration that is developed with not only the Center for Self Sufficiency but the other partner agencies will be invaluable to us and our clients. We are extremely honored to be a part of this collaboration.”

The Center for Self-Sufficiency will work with more than a dozen partners, and appreciates their support and the support of Eloise Anderson in particular. As Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, she was instrumental in developing a partnership between the Department of Children and Families and CFSS for this project to improve services to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families-eligible families and to create an effective domestic violence and child maltreatment service network.

With this funding, the Center’s Vow to Succeed will continue offering a variety of programming in the community, from full-day workshops to retreats and evening classes. All programming is free and open to the public. For more information on the Center for Self-Sufficiency and its Vow to Succeed program, including educational topics, upcoming events, community partner locations and how to get involved, visit the Center for Self-Sufficiency or call (414) 332-0050.

Through the Eyes of a Client

On October 22, 2011, Project RETURN’s 31st Annual Celebrate the Return was hosted by Marquette University. The event was a great success, celebrating 31 years of service to the community while sharing the successes and challenges of prison ministry with volunteers, supporters and past clients. Below is a letter received at Project RETURN shortly after the event from a client of Project RETURN sharing her thoughts.

Dear Project RETURN Staff:

I wanted to take a moment to extend my gratitude for the recent invite to your 31st Anniversary Celebration but even more importantly for your hard work and dedication to such a necessary and important cause.

As a current offender, incarcerated here at Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center, I can attest to how easy it is to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, forgotten, and frustrated during confinement, especially as my release date approaches. Listening to the speakers throughout the evening’s event on the 22nd brought me a certain degree of comfort and assurance about what lies ahead. To know there are not only people out there who genuinely care about inmates but who work tirelessly to help make our transitions back into society smoother is truly amazing and encouraging. You all are miracle workers!

Back in March I came to Project RETURN from the Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center where I was able to utilize your services to secure employment with a local company. I will continue to work there upon my release and because of my job I have had the opportunity to save some money for my re-entry into society, as well as learn new job skills and to meet some great individuals.

I have been in prison for four years and currently down to double digits of my count-down, only 96 days to go! Please expect a phone call from me upon my release. I feel it is important for me to give back and I would love, Love, LOVE the opportunity to volunteer for your organization.

Thanks so much to each and every one of you for all you’ve done and continue to do.

Most Sincerely,

(name changed for anonymity)

Reflections on "Celebrate the Return" by Rachel Muck

Project RETURN’s “Celebrate the Return” benefit was a truly inspirational and successful occasion due to all who attended. The event was hosted at Marquette University on Saturday October 22nd, 2011, with the help of Marquette Professor and Project RETURN Board Member Dr. Ed de St. Aubin.

The celebratory night included a silent auction of an array of donated Packer pictures, handcrafted items by inmates, and gift certificates to a variety of Milwaukee locations.

I was honored to be a part of the rousing conversation and opportunity to volunteer along with three other Marquette seniors, and to be a part of such a wonderful event.

Throughout the evening we were blessed with the stories and courage of the men and women who have survived the hardship of incarceration as a result of their bad decisions, not being bad people. Keynote speaker, and former Green Bay Packer, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, along with other noted speakers, such as Project RETURN Executive Director Wendel Hruska, stressed the fact that we are the ones capable of supporting these men and women to regain their confidence and ability to live a life of prosperity and overcome the challenges they’ve faced.

As a first time attendee of such an event, I was amazed at the faithfulness these men and women have found through their time in prison, such as the Lord says, “...I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36). These men and women have shown such perseverance in correcting their wrongs and becoming healthy, new, and strengthened members of society.

If the people involved in Project RETURN could open my eyes in one night, I can’t even imagine what progress and support can be accomplished in a whole year. I look forward to working on further projects and services with Project RETURN.


Note: Rachel is currently a senior at Marquette University, scheduled to graduate in December, 2011.

Scenes from Celebrate the RETURN 2011

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

Banquet pic
Banquet pic

There is a New Man in Town

Project RETURN is excited to be partnering with a unique ministry in the Milwaukee area called The New Man Project. Its purpose is to provide support, education, training, and employment opportunities for “released citizens” from prison, with the objective of reducing recidivism, stabilizing families, decreasing homelessness, and improving public safety.

This will be accomplished by opening a men’s resale shop, selling items such as hunting and fishing gear, tools, hiking and back packing equipment, fitness and other sporting goods. The store will also have an artisan area where products made by released citizens will be sold, including new and repaired furniture, turned bowls and wood carvings.

In addition, there will be classes offered by local craftsmen and business professionals. They will impart their knowledge and help develop the skills necessary in those returning from incarceration, so they can be competitive in today’s marketplace.

The desired goal is to create opportunities for released persons to obtain sustainable employment, so they can become productive members of society, or as Psalm 68:6 states, "…He leads prisoners out of prison into productive lives."

If you would like more information about The New Man Project, donate items or equipment to the resale shop and training centers, or become a ministry partner, please visit The New Man Project website, or contact Mike Oberbrunner via email at or phone (262-442-5889).

Employment Update

We are excited that 110 Project RETURN clients found employment in the first six months of 2011!

Employers in a wide variety of fields, such as auto part delivery, landscaping, and home construction, are pleased with the positive attitudes, and quality of work provided by our clients.

Our staff of Andre, LaVealea, Teri and Brian diligently worked in developing resumes, making employer contacts, and referrals. With these efforts, our clients such as Bradley, Curtis and Monti are developing stories of the success of people coming out of prison.

Your ongoing support helps to make this happen.

Check back often in Success Stories, as some of our clients share their encouraging stories with you

On July 22, 2011, Project RETURN was the sponsored charity at the Elmbrook Men’s Ministry Golf Outing. This is the second year in a row that Project RETURN has been the sponsored charity. This year, instead of hosting two separate outings, Project RETURN combined the two. The result was the largest golf outing ever associated with Project RETURN.

This event, graciously hosted by Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee, boasted 76 golfers – 19 separate foursomes. In attendance were members from Elmbrook Church, supporters of both Project RETURN and Elmbrook Church, staff and volunteers.

The event was sponsored by 39 local organizations who sponsored holes, the driving range and the beverage carts, while also donating products for the goodie bags provided to each golfer.

Participants in the event endured an hour long rain delay. Despite the wet start, when golf began the clouds parted and participants were able to enjoy a relaxing and enjoyable round of golf, one with a purpose. Participants met and talked with staff, clients and volunteers from Project RETURN to discuss the mission and how they could get more involved. Participants purchased raffle tickets for wonderful prizes while also bidding on items in a silent auction.

Project RETURN would like to thank all those involved in making this event possible. We would also like to thank Western Lakes Golf Club for being such gracious hosts and Elmbrook Men’s Ministry for their continued support. We are looking forward to more partnerships in the near future.

Return to top of page