Parish offers a ‘Welcome Home’ to ex-inmates

By | April 10, 2013

Today, Julian, again released, has a more positive outlook about his future. He describes his current parole agent as a “good guy.” He is interested in job opportunities and has found support through Welcome Home, a program currently based at Nativity of Our Lord Parish.

Volunteers needed

To volunteer, donate or for more information about Welcome Home, contact Orrie Kotecki at (920) 499-5156, (715) 927-5991 or [email protected].

“The program is meant to help at the very basic level for getting folks who are coming out of the system, be it county, state or federal, back into the community as non-reoffending positive members of the community,” said Ken Bukowski, a program volunteer.

The program continues to help with “simple things,” added Bukowski. For example, Robert, an ex-offender, needed work boots for his new job. Bukowski took him shopping.

“When you get out of prison, you have a lot of things to learn,” said Robert. “(Welcome Home volunteers) treat you like you’re a human being. They don’t criticize you for what you have done. They just want you to make better choices for your life. As long as you are doing stuff right, they will help you out.”

The program continues to grow. Last year, Begin ANEW, a residence for women released from incarceration, was opened as an offshoot of Welcome Home. Program facilitator Orrie Kotecki, a former probation and parole agent, explained that Welcome Home has filed to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to operate independently from the parish.

“We’ve expanded with programs,” said Kotecki. “We have a program going into the state prison system called ‘The Gift of Incarceration,’ which will be a book club. We are doing training in the Fox Valley for parishes, the Islamic Society and several of the tribes are involved where we can actually go into institutions and empower and develop leadership qualities prior to release. So when they come out, they are better able to advocate for themselves.”

Kotecki added that a goal is to have ex-offenders serve the program. Louis, who last year completed his stay at a halfway house, now serves as a board member. He recalls one of his first encounters with Bukowski and Welcome Home.

“When I got out (incarceration), I really didn’t have any financial resources,” he said. “It’s hard to walk everywhere in Green Bay and using a bicycle is hard. Ken helped with a bus pass. More importantly, Ken sat down and talked with me individually. I appreciate how he takes time to find out about the person, then determines their needs and helps them meet the needs.”

Assistance with documentation, including birth certificates and driver’s licenses, and information about available community resources remain important services offered by program volunteers. Building up the self-esteem of ex-offenders is also part of the outreach. Franciscan Sr. Fran Bangert, who serves at the Begin ANEW residence, said that the attitude towards ex-offenders needs to change in the community. She had her own misconceptions years ago when male ex-offenders moved in next to a facility where she was on staff.

“I got scared,” she said. “I needed to find out what is going on over there. Here I was putting a judgment on them because I’m afraid. That’s not fair. When I left that night, I thought, ‘If we ever need help next door, this is the first place I would come for help.’ I think the perception of people is fear based. When you uncover the story and hear about the struggles, the fear dissipates.”

“I don’t think the community has a good handle on what they face,” said Kotecki. “People feel that automatically they should be able to make it out here and stay sober. People focus on the word ‘rehabilitation.’ That assumes that something was there to begin with, which may have never been there. There are a lot of new things they need to learn, new ways of doing things.”

Kotecki would like to move Welcome Home into a centrally located building in Green Bay. A headquarters with a drop-in center, laundry facilities, a kitchen for cooking classes and transitional living apartments would be the ideal space, she added. In the meantime, more volunteers and funds are needed.

“People are getting (fewer and fewer) resources when they are getting out,” she said. “The resources will continue to be cut more in the future with the effort to balance the budget. The demand for what we do is higher and will be getting even higher.

“If people would just take a step back, they would see that these are fine human beings,” she added. “They bleed like the rest of us. They hurt like the rest of us. Underneath their exterior, there is a considerable amount of pain.”

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