Project RETURN

Be Encouraged by these Project RETURN Success Stories


Erick's Story

My name is Erick Darrington. For the past 16-1/2 years, I have been an inmate in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. As of February 18, 2014, I am free. The emotions that I feel just writing these first lines are testament to the difficulty of this journey. I would like to share just a small part of that journey and thank you for listening to it.

Incarcerated at the age of 19 for armed robbery, I have spent my entire adult life in the penitentiary. I knew from the beginning that if I was to have any quality of life upon my eventual release, I would need to recreate myself. That included how I viewed our society and my role as a member in it. Education was the tool that I chose to do so. Lacking the financial backing to do it formally, I taught myself by reading the college texts available in the prison library. I did this with the knowledge that I would be able to one day attend university and apply what I learned in an academic setting.

For 15 years I studied and picked up skills that I knew I would be able to use in society one day. After completing my HSED and a Microsoft Office vocational program, I started to tutor other inmates. I learned 2 important lessons during this time. The first was that I am good at helping others to understand difficult material. The second was that I am a real life nerd when it comes to computers. As a result of these realizations, I began to work on developing these skill sets in order to apply them professionally one day.

In October of 2012, I was moved to the Marshall E. Sherrer Correctional Center (MSCC) in Milwaukee. It was there that I was finally given the opportunity to begin to pursue the credentials that I would need to achieve success upon release. As a minimum center, the purpose of MSCC is to provide inmates with the ability to find work in their community of release. To do so MSCC works closely with Project Return to provide access to resources that are necessary in the pursuit of employment.

For 1-1/2 years I was honored to work with the staff of both MSCC and Project Return. With their help, I was able to achieve 33 credits toward my Associates Degree in Network Administration and completed 3 important certifications in the computer field. As a result, I have been able to establish contacts in the community and gain meaningful employment as a Technical Support Specialist with a company in the 5th Ward. It is my sincere hope to continue these relationships as I will never be able to repay the opportunities they have provided me. For them I do not doubt that they feel they were just doing their jobs, but the impact that my time with them has had on my life will stay with me for the rest of my life.

So I thank each one of them. I thank you Superintendent Mitchell and the staff of MSCC for trusting me when you did not have to. And I thank Executive Director Hruska and the case workers of Project Return for welcoming me into your family and providing me with access to the tools that I had been denied for too long. All of you have shown me what true reentry can be. I am truly thankful to have been a part of this mission.

Outreach Efforts

By LaVealea Ball-Johnson

I am the Senior Case Manager/Substance Abuse Counselor here at Project RETURN. Another of my responsibilities is to do outreach, speaking engagements at schools, prison institutions, and churches.

I facilitate a woman’s support group at Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in Union Grove. In that group we talk about real life issues that are going on with them. The ladies in that group are very supportive of one another .Upon their release the ladies that are from Milwaukee area come into the office for more assistance, such as clothing, housing and employment.

I also go into the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, offering the services that we do here at Project RETURN to the men incarcerated there, such as the Project RETURN Alumni group that meets on every Wednesday from 5pm to 6pm, our employment assistance program and AODA support programming. All this is done to let those who are currently incarcerated to know where they will have a place to talk about what is going on with them and how they can give back to the community.

We also try to work with those not incarcerated. Every Tuesday morning I go to the Repairers of the Breach to offer the service to those that are in need. Repairers of the Breach is a daytime homeless shelter, a place where people can go during the day to get a cup of coffee, share some fellowship and feel like they belong. I work with homeless men and women, providing referrals to partner community agencies, job leads and a friendly shoulder to lean on.

We have recently started working with some students at local schools. I go to St. Charles alternative school and Sturm School and talk to the kids about making bad choices and prison.

I love being out in the community offering our services. I feel that I am more effective when I am out in the community, changing lives through outreach. What I love the most about my job is when I am able to meet the client’s needs.

The Pathway Home

Darambo Patterson grew up as a foster child in Milwaukee. He never knew his mother, but got to know his father later in his life. Despite this, Darambo was able to stay out of trouble. Darambo took a down turn in his life in 2004 when he was convicted on a drug possession charge. Mr. Patterson was cited a misdemeanor ticket and released. The following year Darambo was convicted on another possession charge, and was sentenced to 2 years in prison.

Mr. Patterson spent his time in different institutions: Vilas County Jail/ Racine Correctional Institution/Oakhill Correctional Institution/Thompson Correctional Center. It was while Mr. Patterson was serving time in Thompson Correctional, a minimum correctional facility, that he acquired employment where he was able to save almost $6,000. Darambo acquired his HSED in 2006 at Warren Young High School while he was incarcerated, and moved on in life to pick up other skills in carpentry and manufacturing.

Once released in 2007 on good behavior, Darambo was given 27 months of probation. While on probation he acquired and maintained his driver’s license, stayed alcohol and drug free, and signed up for Project RETURN’S job search assistance program.

The first day Darambo came to Project RETURN he was provided with job leads and resources. We set weekly appointments with Darambo for more resources and leads. Mr. Patterson was a very active client making all his appointments. Darambo attained fulltime employment in November of 2007 with a local employer, where he has maintained employment to the present day. He was released from probation in 2009.

In May of 2010 Mr. Patterson took money he had saved and purchased a duplex home on the north side of Milwaukee. Starting out with no tools, but buying each piece one by one, Darambo was able to do most of the repairs himself. Once repairs were complete and the building was brought up to code with the city of Milwaukee, Darambo rented the property out, becoming a landlord for the first time.

The success of the first home purchase went so well Darambo decided to purchase a single family home earlier this year in January. Mr. Patterson and his girlfriend are in the process of making this house a home. The Darambo Patterson story is proof that if given the right tools and resources to a truly rehabilitated individual, they too can easily become a success story.

United in a Cause

Project RETURN has been blessed over the years to have a dedicated volunteer base who give countless hours to care for our clients.

There is a special block in Wauwatosa that goes well beyond caring. It is the 2400 block of 83rd Street in Milwaukee. For the past 15 years the families of this block have collected food, making Thanksgiving baskets for clients of Project RETURN.

“Judy, Manny, Chris, and Audi came up with this project in order to help families that were not so lucky,” states Chris, a member of the block that helps coordinate the efforts. “This year we added Sarah and Rachel to be part of this service project.”

The effort unites the entire block, young and old, in a common cause of making some unknown person’s holiday brighter. “I have been delivering the food that the 2400 block of 83rd Street collects for about eleven years now,” says Wendel Hruska, Executive Director of Project RETURN.

“This is an amazing project. This group goes out of their way to assist men and women and kids they have never and will likely never meet. We stress continually to those returning from incarceration that the community wants them to be successful. This initiative shows that, and has resulted in those assisted not receding back into prison.”

While the benefits to Project RETURN clients are quite apparent, Chris says this act of caring was a greater gift to the block. “The gift actually became one for the neighborhood – we became much more of a ‘family’ on our block.”

Thomas' Story

Thomas has been a Project RETURN client since January of 2009. Thomas was in our job search assistance program. He came in weekly for job leads and computer help with his online job search. During this time he filled out a ton of applications and had many job interviews.

Most jobs required a high school diploma or a GED and a valid driver’s license. With the help of his case manager at Project RETURN, Thomas enrolled at the YWCA for GED classes. He attended these classes and attained his driver’s license through the first part of 2009.

In the fall of 2009 Thomas took the position of a House Manager for a local non-profit shelter, supervising mentally ill clients. This was supposed to be for 4-6 months, but due to Thomas’ outstanding work ethic, nearly two years later he is still employed there.

Thomas also has a 2nd job, working as the head Groundskeeper and Gardener for another non-profit, producing fresh fruits for the neighborhood farmers market. He has had this job since April of 2010. This is a year round position, gardening in the spring, summer, and fall months, and ground keeping in the winter months.

Thomas has shown great improvement in his lifestyle and is doing well in his recovery by giving something back to the community. We are glad that Project RETURN could play a part in his success.

Teri's Story

Teri became involved with Project RETURN through the Milwaukee Women Correction Center (MWCC) in 1995 when Project RETURN volunteers came into the center doing monthly socials. At that time it was Pastor Joe Ellwanger, two staff members and a couple of Marquette students.

We played games – and talked about what Project RETURN did for the people who were incarcerated and the inmates when they got out. Teri remembers those socials, “I liked how they interacted with us as people and not inmates.”

Over the months Teri had built a strong relationship with her case manager. The case worker asked if Teri would be interested in working at the adult center at Cross Lutheran Church. Teri jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the women at the church, helping with activities and food preparation such as setting up tables for the breakfast and lunch they serve to the adults every Tuesday.

Teri recalls, “I met a lot of good women there who also nurtured my spiritual growth.” Over the years Project RETURN asked Teri to volunteer in a variety of programs, from sharing her life through speaking engagements to focus groups to assisting with our Summer Youth Program.

Teri was volunteering at Cross Lutheran Church’s Food Pantry when Project RETURN came calling once again. This time the need was for an employee, and Teri accepted the position.

“My greatest joy is being a case manager for Project RETURN; working in the prison ministry field , providing the clients with the same love and support that I received when I came through the door. As a case manager I provide the clients with the weekly job list, clothing assistance , housing information , furniture request , or anything we can help them with, even if it means just listening to them and taking the time out to let them know we are here for them and we will do everything that we can to make sure all or some of their needs are met.”

Monte's Story

Monte is a 42 year old male with a history of drug use, theft, and incarcerations. After a number of incarcerations Monte called on the Lord, asking for deliverance from all the things that distorted his thinking about life and fatherhood.

Upon his release, Monte says, “The Lord placed on my heart to do a play that I wrote while incarcerated. I wrote and performed the play while incarcerated.” Monte’s parole officer at the time told him to go to Project RETURN.

He came to Project RETURN and spoke with the staff. The Project RETURN staff assisted Monte to get employed. Monte continued to work with Project RETURN, particularly Andre Brown, his case manager, for over 3 years on different projects throughout the community.

Monte and Andre’s relationship is fueled by a shared ambition to benefit the community. This ambition led to Monte to begin to produce the play he wrote while incarcerated. This play was a way for Monte to teach young man the important role they play in a child’s life, and breaking the cycle of incarceration.

For young woman the message is virtue and self-worth. The play started with attendance of 60 people. Within a few months the attendance rose to 350. Today the play draws in 750 people.

As a final thought to the role of Project RETURN in his life, Monte puts it succinctly. “Project RETURN was instrumental in assisting me with my re-entry needs, so I plan to work with Project RETURN on re-entry for other individuals returning from prison.”

Sandderea's Story

Sandderea is an African American female 46 years old, and a mother of three. Sandderea has persevered through many struggles including incarceration, substance abuse related difficulties, and a custody battle for her three children.

Sandderea was one of the first ladies to graduate from the Treatment Alternative to Prison Program at the Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center, an intensive alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) wraparound program designed to provide a connect for women with the community prior to release. Prior to her release, Sandderea was referred to Project RETURN’s AODA Support Group, meeting every Wednesday evening. She successfully completed the program.

When Sandderea was released from prison she enrolled in job development here at Project RETURN. Sandderea is currently working at a non-profit AODA treatment facility here in Milwaukee as an Administrative Assistant.

Sandderea has accomplished a great many things such as going back to school and gaining her HSED, and completing her internship at CYD as an AODA Prevention Specialist in 6 years. At her graduation ceremony, Sandderea spoke to her MATC graduating class.

Perhaps most important, Sandderea has gained full custody of her three children. And if that isn’t enough to keep her busy, Sandderea is planning to be married in 2012. Sandderea has grown throughout her time with Project RETURN, and we applaud her commitment to improving her life even while facing incredible obstacles.

A Life Found

The Journey of a Returning Citizen - Larry Griffin

During the time of the eighties, I was running around with a crew of individuals that were doing all kinds of crazy things. At that time I developed the stigma of running with a bad crowd. And before long I became the bad crowd. Although I joined them, in the end I was the one controlling things. This went on for a number of years, and we were successful. Well, as successful as devils can be. As we went along things began to take on it's own form, as in we started out to make money. But it got to the point where we were just doing things because we could. We stole cars, money and, in some instances, took over people's houses. As these things went on we just did crazier things. This went on for several years, progressing all the time.

When things were at the peak of craziness, it came to my attention that the people that I was involved with wanted to take over other people's places to set up shop. This involved home invasions, kidnapping and multiple assaults. At the time I was not down with that, so I moved around. I didn't want to have anything to do with it. But it went down anyway. As this took place I was moving around the streets. I got popped off for possession of weed, a dangerous weapon, and resisting an officer while armed.

As I was doing the sentence for the later crime at the House of Corrections, I became aware that I was also going to be charged with the crimes of my old crew. This consisted of home invasion, robbery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and multiple assault charges. Upon them sending this information, I was also revocated on a ten-year sentence for an assault that was committed in 1985. I was not to be released until 1995. They send me back to the pen. I am taken into a probable cause hearing in which it was determined that I likely had something to do with the violent crime spree of my old crew. At that point I was sent back to prison to await trial.

For 13 years I thought I was imprisoned falsely, thinking that the system was putting me in places I couldn't stand, with people I couldn't get along with, all in an effort to break me and make me snap. That way they would have a reason to keep me in prison. While this anger lingered I was a difficult person to be around. Finally, I came to the realization that it was actually God's doing. So that I could learn how to endure dealing with people that I didn't like and situations I didn't have control over, I found that God was with me and would move me.

As I went on I came to learn that God is in control of all things. This allowed me to develop a relationship, my first healthy one in a quite a while. I would ask in my prayers that the things that do be pleasing to Him and hopefully be an inspiration to those around me. As I went along doing these things that I felt would be pleasing God and acceptable to those around me, I found a lot of good things started happening in my life. I had a long time in prison to address my anger and where I was.

Then one day I was called back to the unit and was told that I was going to court. After 13 years in prison the case was dismissed. I was released from prison on November 30, 2010, at 12:01 a.m. That night it was raining cats and dogs. But I didn't care. All I knew was that I was free and I was on my way home. Little did I know that I had no home left.

When I returned to Milwaukee, the first thing I tried to do was go to my mother's house. When I finally got there I learned that my mother was no longer alive. Adding to this saddening information was the fact that I no longer had any place to go. So from November 30th to December 14th I was homeless. I couldn't go to by brothers because they were into illegal activities and I did not want to go back to prison. My sister had moved to Oshkosh to go to school so that wasn't an option either. So I was on the streets. I would run into a lot of people I knew. But the only help they wanted to give was giving me dope to sell, and I knew that would just send me on a road back to prison.

All this time I continued to pray "Let the things I do be pleasing to you and be an inspiration to those around me." All I could do was struggle through, praying that God would help me through. I had nothing. No clothes, no identification, nothing. One morning I woke up in the garage I was sleeping in. I decided that on that day I was going to find a temporary service that would allow me to work. I would work any job, if only for a couple of dollars.

I was blessed to be given three bus tickets from a church, and I was pretty good with the bus lines in Milwaukee. But on this day I got mixed up and instead of going to a temp service on the south side, I ended up going downtown. I got off the bus on 6th and Wisconsin. When I got off the bus there was this gentleman standing there. He said "Good morning." I said good morning back, but in my mind I was thinking, "No it really isn't. I woke up in a garage. I have no money, no job, no identification." I didn't tell him that though. However, he must have sensed how I was really because he asked if something was bothering me. So I ended up telling him about the situation I was in. He ended up walking me over a couple of blocks to 6th and State, where I followed him into the State Office Building. By the time I caught up to him at the counter, he already had the service people readying the paperwork I needed to obtain my identification. Upon leaving the building, I was given the knowledge that he was actually a State of Wisconsin Investigator.

After leaving the State Office Building, I go across the street to the Courthouse to the District Attorney's Office. While waiting I meet another guy who was on his way to court. I shared a little bit of my problems with him. He asked me if I was aware of Project RETURN. I told him I had heard of it but that I had never been there. He told me the address and that I should check them out. I left the courthouse and started to walk to Project RETURN. I arrived at about 11:00 am. The people greeted me with open arms, they asked me how they could help me. I told them my situation. They gave me coffee, donuts, sandwiches, and fellowship.

I felt so comfortable with Project RETURN that I would go there everyday for the next week. I started to volunteer cleaning up their offices. It gave me purpose, a job, a meaning. One day I was there working. I was in the back where they keep clothing and furniture for the clients. A lady came in and was going through some of the clothes. I found out later that she was searching for clothes for a tenant in a building she owned. I was introduced to her. To my surprise Project RETURN had arranged with her for me to work and stay at one of the houses she runs. This made me feel so blessed, and so fortunate to have God bring these types of people into my life.

A little while later I was called to Project RETURN to meet with their Executive Director and another organization. This other organization is BASICS, a partner organization of Project RETURN. I am now working with them to start my own business. Now, I ask, how blessed is that?!?

Original art work by Larry Griffin

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