From Your Servant Leaders
October 10, 2019
Dear Vincentian Friends,
Our Rule tells us, “No work of charity is foreign to the Society. It includes any form of help that alleviates suffering or deprivation and promotes human dignity and personal integrity in all their dimensions.”
The maxim that no work of charity is foreign to the Society goes back to our founders and the very first written Rule. At our annual National Assembly in Denver, we saw the depth of those charitable works at a poster session that featured several dozen displays of excellent programs from Councils across the country. I hope assembly participants went home with new ideas and the names of Vincentians with expertise in these efforts.
Several of those displays featured work with citizens who are returning from prison or correctional systems. Last week I attended a meeting in Des Moines where 20 people representing ten of those programs gathered to begin implementing a new national reentry program called “Immersion.” This is a program developed by the Reentry Taskforce headed by Jim Wachuta and Steve Havemann, with staff support from Barbara McPherson. The Immersion program took elements from the best practices of existing Councils to create a vision for a unified national program that can provide a framework with significant measurable outcomes and the capacity to be duplicated in more Councils over the next three years.
The taskforce reports that “Nationally, over 30% of all the individuals the Society of St. Vincent de Paul serves are returning citizens and the families of citizens who are directly impacted by incarceration.” The Immersion program is a carefully designed systemic-change effort to reduce the rate of return to prison for parole violations and recidivism for the people returning as our neighbors.
The program targets eight “Key Components” that contribute to the successful reentry process. These are: Mentoring, Employment, 72-Hour Transitional Programming, Community Partnerships, Education of Vincentians and Volunteers, Education of Returning Citizens and their Families, Advocacy, and Housing. Participating Councils agree to use this program with goals and activities that address at least three of these components.
The group gathered in Des Moines to increase the ability of participating Councils to serve, but the work was enhanced by participants’ Vincentian spirituality and growing friendship, elements at the heart of our mission. I was very privileged to be with them and participate in the kickoff of the Immersion program. Here are a few observations I find worth noting from the meeting:
First, this program was created through a collaborative effort among Vincentians from across the country who have already been doing this work locally. They put their time and effort into creating a national program that would improve what they currently do, even if it means changing some of their current practices. Too often, our Councils work in isolation and don’t take advantage of the tremendous resource we can be for each other.
Secondly, Immersion uses technology with valid data-collection methods, so that progress in meeting goals is evidence-based. By requiring all programs to use the same data-collection system, the program can provide funders with certified results, and we can eventually demonstrate the collective impact of our efforts nationally. This is an element that has been missing in most of our systemic-change efforts.
Thirdly, this program engages Vincentians in a major portion of the work and integrates with most existing efforts of our Conferences and Councils. It is a danger to create programs that need to be mainly staff-driven. Most Immersion programs will need at least one staff member, but the program uses Vincentians and other volunteers for much of the work. The people served can also be offered the resources of most of the typical charitable activities of the Society.
Finally, Immersion includes the perspectives of people who know what it means to be incarcerated. At the meeting in Des Moines, three of the attendees were individuals who had experienced incarceration. They participated in the planning and presentations. Few of us can understand the challenges and burdens that people who have spent time in prison face when they return to society. We need them on our teams. We know that this is the right thing to do, but seldom do we see it put into practice.
The systemic-change efforts of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are being advanced through well-conceived programs such as Immersion. Working with formerly incarcerated people is challenging and rewarding. It is certainly one of those works of charity, described in the Rule, “that alleviates suffering or deprivation and promotes human dignity and personal integrity in all their dimensions.”
I invite you to explore the Immersion program at its website: www.immersionreentry.org
Serviens in spe,
National Council President