Northern Division: Serving every county in Minnesota and North Dakota
Men and women at a VAST meeting

New prison ministry program is next level

Added on Thursday, February 18, 2016

It’s been one year since a compassionate team of Salvation Army staff and volunteers (find opportunities) created a new program that provides added support for men coming out of prison.

So far, the program appears to be working.

Chaplain John Hulteen leads VAST“We’ve had 12 guys come through the program, and not one of them has been back in prison,” affirmed Salvation Army Chaplain John Hulteen (pictured), who leads the program – called the Volunteer Aftercare Support Team, or VAST.

VAST’s main purpose is to help the men fill two critical needs: 1. Emotional support. 2. Employment.

This support is in addition to what The Salvation Army’s prison ministry team already offers to men and women on the outside, including transitional housing, food, clothing, and other support (related story).

“Through VAST we’re trying to offer something more,” Hulteen said. “Hope fizzles without ongoing support.”

A VAST women’s group is beginning to take shape as well. In addition to serving women coming out of prison, it will also support women on the outside who have an incarcerated son or daughter, spouse or other loved one.

Prison bars outside Stillwater Correctional FacilityCorey, a felon who spent eight years in prison, is thankful for the emotional support he receives through VAST’s Christian-based programming.

“I’ve tried making it on my own and I failed miserably,” he said.

He’s been coming to the program’s weekly meetings ever since he was released from prison in May.

“The emotional support is the most important part of the whole program,” Corey added. “The one biggest thing about coming out of prison is receiving support and finding people who are not going to judge you.”

Meetings are held at the N. Lyndale Ave. Salvation Army in Minneapolis every Thursday night, when men can grow spiritually, learn from others coming out of prison, take advice from staff and volunteers, and be accepted for who they are. The first half of each meeting includes discussions about the men’s everyday struggles. The second half is a video training.

“The video is called A Man and his Traps,” Hulteen said. “We take a Christ-centered, introspective look at what drives risky behavior.”

Job coaching

The employment component of VAST is equally important. Men exiting prison often view finding a job as an insurmountable hurdle because: 1. Few employers readily hire felons. 2. The men have been locked up for so long that they’ve forgotten how to find and keep a job.

VAST helps men secure employment by providing one-on-one counseling from volunteer professionals who provide expert advice in the areas of résumé writing, job searching, interview coaching, mental preparation, using today’s technology, and more.

Thanks to that support, Hulteen said, “One of our guys is now working full-time for a fruit packaging company in St. Paul, and another guy is working a good construction job in Anoka.”

Corey has a good job, too. He works in customer service and earns enough money to support himself.

Big need

The need for intensive post-prison outreach programs like VAST is immense because Minnesota prisons are bursting at the seams.

Chaplain Charles BerryMany of the state’s nearly 10,000 inmates are repeat offenders who keep committing crimes because they are unable to obtain the two things they need most: employment and housing.

“To survive, they’re almost forced to revert to the things that got them incarcerated in the first place,” said Chaplain Charles Berry (pictured), a Salvation Army prison minister and VAST staff member.

Corey agrees with that premise. As somebody who’s been through the system, he understands just how valuable post-prison outreach is to the success of men and women looking for a second chance.

“Our society only becomes stronger helping people like myself,” he said.

Future plans

Hulteen’s long-term goal for VAST is to create a cycle in which men and women enrolled in the program go on to visit prisons and serve as mentors to inmates.

“This is just beginning to happen,” said Hulteen, noting that Corey and another participant named Rick have demonstrated enough improvement that they are close to achieving mentor status. “This would make the program come full circle – we meet the men and women inside prison, we help them find success on the outside, then they use what they’ve learned to support others coming out of prison.”

A man stands inside prison gatesMen enrolled in VAST initially meet Hulteen and other Salvation Army prison ministry staff while they are incarcerated. In prison, Salvation Army staff engage men and women in Bible studies and transformative programs such as Celebrate Recovery and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, among other courses.

“A few weeks before they’re released, we meet with them to determine what their needs will be when they hit the street – food, clothing, housing, and other things,” Hulteen said. “Once they’re out, they meet with a Salvation Army case manager who gives them what they need.”

After that, VAST kicks in.

“We’ve seen it happen time and time again that when folks come out and don’t get the support they need, they spin out and land back inside,” Hulteen said. “That’s where this VAST team wants to be positioned. With God’s help, these men and women can change.”

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