Striding for Support

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By Casey Coughlin

In a module office behind Quinebaug Valley Community College sits the headquarters of STRIDE, a non-profit organization that provides wrap around services to its participants coming out of prison. STRIDE first works to reach its clients behind bars by running a reentry workshop five times a year in a handful of prisons across the state. The program then follows their participants after release: aiding them in housing, employment, education, and family reunification. For Program Director Julie Scrapchansky and her small staff, the holiday season can bring a mixed bag of emotions.

When talking about what the holidays are like for their clients, Julie says, “I think it is bitter sweet for them. For those individuals that are in [prison] and truly are remorseful and want to be with their family it is kind of heart wrenching. For those that are outside it’s astounding. They are just so happy to be reunited with their families and it is a really beautiful thing.”

Last holiday season, in attempt to address the Department of Corrections winter release procedures, Julie’s staff teamed up with the Student Council at Quinebaug Valley to organize and run an adult coat drive. The problem ex-offenders faced when being released was not having seasonal clothing. If they were not taken into custody during winter months they would not be given a jacket upon release. Seeing this as a problem for their own clients, Julie and her staff ran a coat drive which was met by the community with tremendous support. So much support, in fact, that they were able to give a coat to every client who requested one and had enough extras to donate to three other prisons.

This year they decided to do something different. “We just thought about the children because it’s Christmas and they sometimes don’t have warm jackets to go to school with. We decided it would be more humanizing to give something to the children that they may not have.” Catherine Menounos, a STRIDE Job Developer adds, “It all started with one of our participants who had two children who didn’t have any way to get coats. A lot of the programs that were out there last year for children’s coats are not there this year.”

Catherine, one of two Job Developers at STRIDE meets with around 50 clients weekly in the northern half of the state. She helps them gain and maintain employment. STRIDE’s goal is to assist ex-offenders reentering the community to gain and maintain employment for at least three consecutive months. Julie proudly tells me their clients’ recidivism rate is dramatically below the states average (47%) currently hovering around 14%.

For Catherine, seeing her clients struggle around the holidays is stressful. “If [the clients] don’t have a job or just recently got one, it’s the pressure of ‘How do I provide a gift?’ So the conversations are more around, ‘You’re not a failure because you don’t have 20 gifts under the tree.’ They do feel really excited and happy but then they also feel like they have to make up for lost time. So we really try to head that off ahead of time with having the discussion of what is a realistic expectation, where can you get stuff, what you can do instead so that they can feel like they can provide the Christmas that they want to provide.”

Catherine worries that the stress of the holidays may lead her clients back into unhealthy patterns or drug use. She works early with them to set a plan that is obtainable and provides additional support services like referring them to AA or other community addiction support programs. Catherine connects her clients with toy drives like Tommy’s Toy Drive (www.toysfortots.org) or more commonly helps her clients make plans to refurbish items. “If your child wants a bike, instead of borrowing money, you can get one and fix it up making it brand new and special. So it is trying to be creative but also realistic.”

The coats that are being collected will go to children with parents that are incarcerated or who are participating in the STRIDE program. Because of economic hardships more families are looking to utilize these drives more than ever. Julie explains, “We have had a lot of people calling from the community asking for a jacket, and [we] try to explain to them that the program is being run specifically for incarcerated moms and dads. Unfortunately there is no other programming that we are aware of happening.”

For more information about STRIDE’s coat drive please visit their website.

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