An Inside Look at New Beginnings Program for Returning Citizens

*A special thank you to Jamie Riehle, today's guest author and Mentor Coordinator for Women's Resource Center's New Beginnings program. Our Board of Trustees recently approved a $52,000 grant so incarcerated women can get jobs upon reentry through the New Beginnings program. 

At Women’s Resource Center (WRC), our mission is to improve women’s workplace and economic opportunities. The New Beginnings program, which in-reaches into the Kent County Correctional Facility, gives us the opportunity to reach some of the most economically vulnerable women in our community, providing them with the support and training they need to come home and be successful. For every woman we touch, success looks different, but our program is built to be individualized and holistic, so that each woman gets what she needs and wants in order to change her life.

The New Beginnings program provides employability skills classes and assessments, group and individual mentoring from trained volunteers from the community, comprehensive reentry planning and on-going post-release case management. We work closely with each woman, her natural support systems, and any other service agency she may be involved with, including foster care, recovery services, and probation officers. Our services are gender-responsive and trauma informed.

Women end up in jail for a variety of reasons, but there are often some common themes that made them vulnerable prior to their incarceration. New Beginnings targets sentenced female felony offenders at medium- to high-risk of recidivism, meaning those most likely to return to jail in the future. Several factors determine a person’s risk level, and may include the nature of her crime, her criminal history, her educational and vocational attainment, the existence of an addiction or mental illness, and her ties to the community.

It is expensive to put a person in jail or prison, and there are unique secondary, tertiary, and social costs to incarcerating women. Statistically, justice-involved women have a higher incidence of health and mental health issues, active addictions, and trauma histories than men, which makes them more expensive to incarcerate. They are often financially responsible and caring for children, parents, and/or grandchildren prior to going to jail, which can have a disastrous effect on her family and community. Often incarcerated women with minor children have involvement with Child Protective Services. The cost (both financial and emotional) of maintaining children in foster care cannot be ignored.

The women we work with come to us with a variety of skills and experiences, along with diverse needs and barriers to economic self-sufficiency. We attempt to address their needs individually, whether that means a warm coat to wear when they walk out of jail, or assistance getting enrolled in a vocational program. Teaching a woman how to fill out a job application or prepare for an interview isn’t enough, especially when she may be experiencing food insecurity, homelessness, or continued substance abuse. At WRC, our goal is to help women become “job-ready” and New Beginnings participants tend to have significant needs to be addressed before we can take the next steps with them.

We have had wonderful support from the community and our agency partners, including Kent County Correctional Facility, that see the value in what we do. With each woman we serve, we have an effect on the community. Grand Rapids Community Foundation is giving us the opportunity to continue to help these women and their families achieve their potential and positively contribute to the community.