Post-prison ministry offers support, community
Written by Haley Earley, manager of donor offers for The Salvation Army Northern Division
On any given Thursday night, you can expect to see a full room at the N. Lyndale Ave. Salvation Army as people gather for the Volunteer Aftercare Support Team, or VAST. It’s an outreach program designed to offer one-on-one support for individuals who are transitioning back into society after serving time in prison, and their loved ones.
The men and women in the program get help with everything from finding housing, to building job skills and creating fellowship to help keep them out prison for good. After spending an evening with the participants, it’s easy to see why the VAST program has quadrupled in size (related story) since it began last year.
This particular evening began with dinner, donated by Famous Dave’s and served by volunteers. For some, a complete meal is a real treat – as demonstrated by one participant who returned for seconds, thirds, and fourths. For all, it was an opportunity to break the ice, and reconnect before the real work of the meeting began.
Once bellies had been filled, the men and women split into separate groups to fill their hearts.
The women’s fellowship leader started off with a reminder, “VAST is not just a program, it’s a ministry. Life is tough, but God is with us. And if He is with us, no one can stand against us.”
Gathered in a circle, the women shared their successes and challenges. They supported each other in both joy and and in sadness – one woman was mourning the death of a loved one, while another was celebrating a new job.
While many begin attending VAST as a parole requirement, they say they keep coming back for the love and support. The participants tell stories, offer advice, lift each other up in prayer, and hold one another accountable.
“I could attend any number of meetings (for people released from prison), but I choose to come to The Salvation Army,” explained one woman, with a smile.
Mourning and celebrating together
Going around the circle, it was clear these women were comfortable sharing their ups and downs, encouraging new members to join in, too.
On this particular evening, here are a few of the highlights:
- One woman registered for four fall semester classes at a local university, where she will receive her bachelor’s degree in anthropology next spring.
- Another got a job as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and bought a car.
- A participant had been sitting on the outside of the circle of women, but finally broke down and shared that her sister had died unexpectedly. The others rallied around her to offer comfort and support.
- They discussed how women can maintain healthy physical and emotional boundaries, a key to healing and making sure they stay on a path that will keep them out of prison.
Combating the recidivism rate
The men and women who attend VAST understand that if they want to avoid prison in the future, they must change the relationships, habits and patterns that landed them there in the first place.
Minnesota reportedly has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation, and everyone here knows it. In fact, just weeks ago, a regular member of this group went back to prison. That helps motivate the people here to fight even harder to stay on track and rebuild their lives.
“When I go to work, I keep asking when the end of the day is. But when I’m here, I wish the evening would last forever,” shared one woman, as the others nodded in agreement.