Florida has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country, with 960 people incarcerated for every 100,000 residents – compared to a national average of 890. Despite the fact that the intended purpose of the Department of Corrections is to rehabilitate individuals who have committed crimes and prevent repeated offenses from occurring, recidivism remains a problem. Florida’s recidivism rate, which the FDC defines as returning to prison within three years, is 25.4 percent. That means that approximately 2.5 out of every ten prisoners will return to prison after just three years or less. Spire Magazine spoke with Kizzy Rivers and Lori Head from Rescue Me Project Ministries, Inc., a nonprofit launched in 2015 dedicated to reducing recidivism by easing the process of reintegration into society, with a specific mission to teach recently released individuals computer literacy skills in the hopes of improving their chances of employment. Rivers is the founder and CEO of the organization, while Head serves as a secretary board member as well as social media director. “Inspiring lives one day at a time” is their mission statement
Briefly describe your nonprofit – what is its mission, vision, values, etc.? Why and how was it started?
Lori Head: It’s Rescue Me Project Ministries – we usually shorten it to RMPM for simplicity. It was founded by executive director Kizzy Rivers. When she was younger, she had relatives who were in and out of the prison system, and so the idea of helping the formerly incarcerated really hit home for her. So it was her ambition after she recived her Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership and Management to start her own non-profit. She’s been in Tallahassee for a long time and thinks it’s a good environment. Her goal is to reduce recidivism by bringing people out of the dark ages with computing skills – because technology grows so quickly, and if people are away for even a few short months, or up to years, when they come back out they find that all the social services, all of the information, is located in the cloud and they can’t access it. Things we take for granted with smartphones, tablets – even something as silly as the keyboard will alter, and they had an idea about how everything was laid out only to find out that the new model looks completing different. So it’s intimidating, and if they have people who are in a similar situation to them, they don’t necessarily have the ability to learn off of one another – like some people do with fellow students or people in the working world and offices. Not having those computer skills keeps them from getting back into society, and gives them the opportunity to obtain those social services for one, as well as the opportunity to advance their education. Everything from a GED all the way up to a Bachelor’s is really difficult if they don’t know how to access those sources.
And [Rivers] saw that her relatives would struggle; they would go in, technology would change, they would come back out and basically be at square one. A lot of it was because it was frustrating, the other aspect was that once they were adults and tried to provide for themselves a lot of higher paid jobs required these skills, and they never had the opportunity to build them. So, she thought that that would be a good intervention point. There are a lot of wonderful agencies here in Tallahassee that focus on other aspects [of re-integration], such as mental health, housing, food stamps, but nothing really focusing on computer literacy. So she saw that as her niche.
Kizzy Rivers: It’s very dear to me, I have a family member that has been constantly in and out of jail. I’ve seen his struggles and, through volunteering, have seen others struggling. I realized there is a missing piece, so that’s what made me want to fill that gap. And just to help others, that’s what I love to do. We’re here helping them get back into society the best way we can.
So, the current mission of the non-profit is computer literacy for previously incarcerated individuals. Do you have a goal of branching out in the future into other reintegration-oriented projects?
LH: Yes, that is the goal in the long-term. The short-term goal is to get that computer literacy program really strong. We are operating right now out of The Kearney Center and Veteran Village. There are only so many computers that the students can access and [Rivers’] idea is to branch off the computer program, let that grow, and then get the support that we need in terms of partnerships to have things like case managers come in, we could bring in the mental health aspects and other aspects that are being touched on right now. We would like to have people be released and leave fully reintegrated under the Rescue Me world, and then able to go back into society to start over.
KR: Once we secure at least fifteen locations within the city, that will help allow us to help as many people as we can for computer classes. Because we are using someone else’s computer lab space, we can only cater to either their customers, or some people don’t feel comfortable coming into someone else’s location. Once we expand and have multiple locations, we’re going to at least start working on our own building, and then after that we will start work on a house or an apartment complex. We want to have a bigger space with a rec room, computer room, and things of that nature so that we can house our own clients to help them get back into society.
So you offer courses that these individuals can take – logistically, how does this work? How do you recruit students, and what are the different classes?
LH: So we are currently set up with three tiers of workshops that operate out of the Kearney Center and Veteran Village. We have volunteers come and proctor the classes. Each class is two hour chunks that meet twice a week. The first level is the Beginner Workshop – that is things like turning on a computer, sitting at a desk properly, knowing what things are like keyboards, monitors. We use a free Type to Learn program, which tracks the students’ progress in a cloud and is something they can access every week. So, as long as the same student logs in with his or her credentials they can monitor their progress that way. The intermediate class tries to bridge from what they learn in the basics and also include things like going onto the Internet, performing safe searches, creating an email address for themselves, and also using cloud storage (we use Google). The reason is that once you obtain all of this wonderful information, you want to be able to access it later if need be. The last level is the Advanced level, which is when the students learn to take their research skills and typing skills to be able to perform tasks in Microsoft Office, have a rudimentary understanding of accessing scholarly information, and they do also learn how to make a resume. They go through a little bit of “Dressing for Success” training, and they also have to perform 20 hours of community service as a way of giving back as well as an opportunity to learn a new skill. It’s not just going out and picking weeds, but community service that involves working with small business owners or entrepreneurs in their places of business and helping them out with tasks that typically would be given to a paid employee, but as a small business owner you might not have the means. So it’s a learning opportunity for both the owner and the student to get out there and learn skillsets that typically they don’t have the opportunity for when working, say, in a retail industry.
So is the hope there that these individuals will also establish connections with these businesses for employment?
LH: Yes! So, we actually have a networking event coming up on February 27th that will be at the Leroy Collins Leon County Public Library. The goal is to bring the students in from their workshop, where they will give presentations about themselves and how they came across Rescue Me and what the workshop has done for them so far. The hope is that these business owners will see that there is someone who is willing to put the work in – it’s really that [as a business owner] you are giving someone a chance, and also taking a chance, so it’s a good experience on both sides.
What is the importance behind these computer literacy programs, and other programs working to reintegrate individuals back into society? How would you describe why not only your organization, but others, are so needed?
LH: Leon County is actually listed as one of the highest rates of crimes in Florida, unfortunately. While of course you are going to have violent crimes where it is harder to sympathize with people who commit things like robbery or murder, there are also petty crimes – things like picking pockets and stealing cars with the keys still in them to try to pawn them. I think a lot of it is the result of having a lot of people, but not enough opportunity. While we do live in the capital of the state and there is a lot of wonderful education here, there is also not as much opportunity for people who are not established in those wonderful educational systems. Unfortunately sometimes these people fall into that category. And I believe there is not a good outlet where they can go and get these skills that are very needed for them. People, as a general rule, do not want to be evil, and do not want to commit crimes. They want to be within society, rather than on the outskirts of it. Having programs like this say, “You don’t have to sell your soul in order to get these skills – you deserve them.” What we are giving back is that one skill [of computer literacy], while other organizations are giving them other skills. Hopefully between everybody, we make up the missing pieces of that pie for them and make them whole again.
What are some challenges these individuals face, especially regarding getting a job and getting back into society after incarceration?
LH: This is something we are also looking at – one of the hardest things for these individuals, apart the employment and lack of a livable wage aspect, is that even if someone is able to obtain a full-time job it is difficult for them to find housing by themselves. A lot of apartment complexes will now require screenings, and if it is found out that these individuals have been incarcerated it is difficult for them to get approved. This means they will have to move into not-so-wonderful areas, and unfortunately when you have a group of people who think very similarly in a situation that’s beyond their control, it’s unfortunate that recidivism does keep coming back. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy; when you are telling someone, “We are going to give you this aspect of your life, we’re going to help you improve that, but we’re not going to work on the other side.” It’s a little bit difficult to work on both sides.
With employment, it’s a similar situation. A lot of new rules are coming out where you have to have a Level 2 Background Screening, which means that if there has been someone who has gone to prison it will be a flag in their application and usually results in them not receiving the job regardless of their level of expertise. They could be perfectly suited for the job in all areas except that.
A lot of the time there are stigmas against people who have been to prison. Can they present all of these skills that you help them gain, but still be rejected by someone due to that background check item?
LH: Yes, and it’s difficult to change the minds of the many. But in the meantime, giving them an opportunity to stay in a facility that would be housed by Rescue Me would be a goal as well. It would be almost a transitional housing for them to work their way toward getting a recommendation from, say, the small business owners who ultimately hire them. Even the ones who volunteer or do an externship with small business owners who give them a glowing recommendation that says, “I took a risk by letting this person into my place of business, this is my livelihood, and he or she acted with the utmost professionalism. I would not think of him or her differently than any other employee.” Slowly but surely, that will help minimize the stigma, even if it is just for one person, it chips away at it. And that is our mission statement: Inspiring lives one day at a time. Sometimes it truly is just one success will begin another. It’s worth it if one person’s life is turned around.
Do you have any particular success stories about your organization?
LH: We recently received a grant from the Awesome Foundation. They will fund individuals, entities, as well as they like the project. We talked about the computer workshops and how we would love to expand them as our first and foremost goal, and we were awarded the November 2017 spot. That helps put us on the map a little bit – having that, as they call it, social proof, helps give validation to what we do as well as to the people that we are serving. Your work seems more significant when you have other people saying that this is a good thing we have going on.
KR: I’m really excited about my Advanced Computer class, simply because I want everybody to expand their horizons. I don’t want them to think they can only do construction or only do landscape, you can only do so many things because you have a background. Because of that, we are partnering with entrepreneurs and small business owners in the local community that will help them to get that exposure and that experience, with the hopes of them getting a job either with those businesses or with another entrepreneur.
With that being said, we have one client that has successfully completed our program from the beginning to the end and has been working with me diligently. I have a boiled peanut business on the side, so I’m an entrepreneur and small business owner and know how it feels to need that extra help. He’s eager, he’s excited, and he’s been going back and forth with his computer. We are going to have our graduating students stay in contact with him to see how things are going.
That’s one success story, but we are working on a second, really really success story at the Kearney Center. We actually have a new volunteer who’s like an IT person – this guy is amazing. He’s helping this gentleman at the Kearney Center [learn these skills]. They’re talking Adobe, they’re talking all of these tech terms, and I’m like, “You are a godsend!” Because I’ve been doing what I can, and now we have someone who can actually talk about these [more advanced] computer skills. For instance, on Tuesday I didn’t have to say a word and just let him teach. We have several digital production companies coming to our event on the 27th and … who knows, maybe he can get a part-time gig. So I’m super excited about that. The Advanced Class is really where my heart is at.
Everything else, it’s all about getting them motivated. At the beginning of every class, we give them an inspired speech. So breathe in, breathe out, and say, “I am inspired to learn something new every day. I am inspired to be a better person. I am inspired to complete these classes.” I like to go back and forth with them and ask, “What are you inspired by today?” and if I get something back I’ll say, “Give me another one!” It helps loosen them up, I just want them to feel comfortable. I want my volunteers and board members to feel comfortable. Once everyone’s comfortable, they flow and just mesh together, and I’m like, “It’s coming together! I am super excited.”