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Church program helps ex-convicts turn lives around

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A UMNS photo by Allysa Adams

The Rev. Tina Yankee, executive director of Turnabout, confers with program assistant Solomon Young.
Dec. 12, 2006


By Allysa Adams*

DENVER (UMNS)--On a fall Saturday, six ex-convicts are in an industrial warehouse learning how to operate a forklift. The training could be the ticket to a job.

The men are clients of Turnabout, a program started by Trinity United Methodist Church to help ex-convicts make their way back into society.

Turnabout participant Ed Rollerson was released from prison in August after serving three years on drug-related charges. At 50, he says he's too old to start all over, but that's just what he's doing.

"I have goals that I've set," he says. "It's to find me employment and get back into a good relationship with my family." He'll have to tackle the relationship issues on his own, but Turnabout is helping with the job.

After a day of classroom work and forklift training, Rollerson will receive his forklift certification, enabling him to apply for a job that pays well above minimum wage. Normally the certification costs hundreds of dollars, but Turnabout picks up the cost for program participants.

Rollerson is grateful to Turnabout. "They help you with clothes and work tools," he says. "Basically they help you with everything you need." He's optimistic the staff will help him find a job driving a forklift.

Small beginnings

Trinity started Turnabout in 1985 as a small outreach ministry to help homeless people in the downtown Denver neighborhood. At first, all it could offer was coffee, conversation and maybe a few job leads. By 1997, church members realized the need was much greater, and they decided to reach out to prisoners, a population not easily accessed.

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A UMNS photo by Allysa Adams

Bobby Williams (right), a Turnabout reintegration specialist, counsels a client.
"People commit crimes and go to jail; we're not against law enforcement," says the Rev. Tina Yankee, Turnabout executive director, but "95 percent of all people will get out, and when they get out, they need help. We're there to help them hopefully not go back and commit another crime."

Since 1997, Turnabout has served more than 3,500 formerly incarcerated men and women. The program's seven staff members help 900 clients every year.

Turnabout's first contact with inmates is made inside the jails, where staff members teach job skills, such as how to create a resume and how to find and interview for a job. Once outside, the former inmates receive hands-on job training in such skills as forklift driving, construction and commercial driving.

"They're not just shown the front door and (told), 'here's your $50 and off you go,'" says Marty Sorenson, president of Turnabout's board of directors. "We're there as sort of a big brother, big sister. You can't reintegrate into society without having a partner."

This partner also helps with financial aid for education, pays for needed equipment and, most importantly, helps clients find jobs.

Low rate of recidivism

In 18 months, just over 17 percent of 442 turnabout clients went back to jail. The average rate of recidivism is 36 percent.

Turnabout is unusual in that it focuses on training for jobs that are available, pay a decent wage and are, in many cases, suited to the solitary lifestyle many ex-convicts prefer.

The program works because of the staff's commitment, faith and spirituality, according to Sorenson.

"For me," he says, "it's right here, it's in my heart, and this is why I'll do it."

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A UMNS photo by Allysa Adams

Bill Abegg plays with his with son, Joshua, 1½. With Turnabout's help, Abegg is now a supervisor in a steel plant.
Yankee attributes Turnabout's success to the staff's ability to connect with the clients. She says the goal is "to accept them, to not judge them — to not say, 'Gosh darn, you made that big mistake.'"

Bill Abegg knows Turnabout works. Abegg, a single father in his 50s, has what he terms "an intense criminal background." He had been through training programs before, only to re-offend and end up back in jail. But with Turnabout's help, Abegg is now a supervisor in a steel plant and working on a degree in paralegal work.

When he visits Turnabout offices, it's clear that he is more than a client. The staff knows his two boys, 4-year-old Pete and 1½-year-old Josh. Abegg talks easily with Yankee, who considers him a friend.

Abegg is clearly dedicated to his new life as a responsible role model for his sons, and he has high hopes for them. "I want them both to be scholars and running for president."

*Adams is a freelance writer and producer in Phoenix.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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