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Prisoners rebuild camp, self-esteem

 
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7:00 A.M. EST Dec. 3, 2010

At Wesley Woods Conference Center, Dave Cooper stands in front of the Little Chapel in the Woods that he rescued from the demolition pile. Photos courtesy of Joshua Easton, Wesley Woods Conference Center.
At Wesley Woods Conference Center, Dave Cooper stands in front of the Little Chapel in the Woods that he rescued from the demolition pile. Photos courtesy of Joshua Easton, Wesley Woods Conference Center. View in Photo Gallery

What happens when a United Methodist conference center takes a leap of faith and hires nonviolent offenders to tackle jobs around the camp?

Phenomenal things, if you ask Jeff Fry, site director at Wesley Woods Conference Center in Williams Bay, Wis.

It all started in January when Fry decided to contact a local work-release facility about employing a few minimum-security, nonviolent offenders assigned community service as restitution for lesser/misdemeanor offenses.

“Most are serving time for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated,” Fry said.

He asked for five hard-working, able-bodied men to complete a variety of tasks. Jobs included cutting, stacking and hauling wood for a “green” boiler system; re-roofing a lodge; renovating a chapel; remodeling the facility’s oldest and largest building; winterizing cabins; repairing vehicles; painting; and maintaining the spacious grounds.

In many ways, the men have rebuilt the camp — and, in the process, rebuilt their lives.

One of the workers is Dave Cooper.

“Dave came to us in late March and wasn’t really sure what he had gotten himself into,” Fry recalled. “He had heard the others talking about the great food … at Wesley Woods, and that was about it.”

After a couple of days, Cooper asked Fry if there were a project he could work on alone as the other men were from another dorm and making friends was not one of his best skills.

‘I can’t think of a better place to be’

Fry showed Cooper the Little Chapel in the Woods. It “was just an old outbuilding about to be demolished and hauled away,” Fry said. Cooper spent the next two months remodeling the building inside and out.

Paul Gover, a work-release participant at Wesley Woods Conference Center, Williams Bay, Wis., rakes autumn leaves.
Paul Gover, a work-release participant at Wesley Woods Conference Center, Williams Bay, Wis., rakes autumn leaves. View in Photo Gallery

“It is now one of our most precious amenities here at Wesley Woods,” Fry continued. “Everyone is just amazed at what he has done. Dave now lives here at Wesley Woods and, with my help and his courage, has not had a drink since his release in mid-September.”

Two of the men — certified heating, ventilating and air conditioning technicians — inspected all furnaces and air conditioners. “We were lucky enough to have two at the same time who worked very well together and did a great deal of work for us,” Fry added.

Others overhauled and rebuilt seven boat motors.

“We started the program in January and planned for it to run until June and then restart it again in September,” Fry said. “One thing led to another, and a family bond was made with these men. I elected to keep them on all summer on a trial basis. What a great decision and great year it has been as they have completed so much. They have had an opportunity to find a project they can do themselves that they can be proud of.”

Paul Gover, 25, has worked at Wesley Woods for six months.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to be,” he said. “Being out here has been really, really positive.

“We all make bad decisions from time to time. These people realize you made a bad decision, but, of course, you earn your trust and you earn your respect. Once you get that, they treat you like family. If you need help, they’ll help you.”

Blessing upon blessing

Along with nurturing participants’ self-worth, Wesley Woods has saved money — a lot.

“Five men at eight hours average per day, six days a week for 50 weeks at a worth of $10 per hour equals $120,000,” Fry calculated.

But the buck does not stop there. Other blessings have followed.

A work-release participant and a young camp visitor enjoy fishing.
A work-release participant
and a young camp visitor enjoy fishing.
View in Photo Gallery

“I will be standing up in one of their weddings next May,” Fry said, “and will become the godfather to the son of another soon.”

With the holidays approaching, he is doing whatever he can to make Christmas memorable for the men.

Recently, for example, Cooper told Fry that this would be the first Christmas he would not be able to watch “Home Alone.” For him, it is a holiday tradition.

“I told Dave to ask his mom to bring the DVD, and we would all sit down and watch the movie together.” That seemed an easy way to fulfill a Christmas wish.

When a man is about to be released from jail, he is responsible for his replacement at Wesley Woods.

“There is no one better to judge a fellow inmate than a person who lives with them,” Fry said.

Camp staff members agree that the men quickly become part of their team. “I explain to all of the groups about our program,” Fry said, “and who these men are, and (everyone is) fine with the program.”

‘A beautiful, win-win situation’

What has been the greatest benefit to the men?

“Knowing that someone cares and that if they work at it, they can earn the trust of others again,” Fry replied.

Fry’s bright idea has reaped rewards for many.

“There are a lot of people out there,” he noted, “that if given a chance to accept guidance, be trusted and shown that they are cared about, it is a beautiful win/win situation for everyone involved.”

Gover is confident that Fry and the rest of the staff support him 100 percent.

“I know if I get back on the streets, real world, and I start going back to my old ways, which everyone has those feelings every now and again, I could call Jeff … and say, ‘Look this is what’s going on, I need some help,’ and they’re gonna be there for me,” Gover said. “Everybody needs someone behind them like that.”

The results fill Fry with awe.

“Wesley Woods has never looked so good or had so many positive changes in one year.”

The original five men, no longer incarcerated, have gone on with their lives. “Some keep in touch,” Fry said. “Some come back and donate their time.

“Who would have thought that such goodness could come out of getting men out of jail six days a week so they could come to work for nothing more than three meals and a chance at a new friendship?”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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