Churches and Community Foster Success After Sentencing

For many offenders just getting out of jail or prison, the hardest part of their sentence may be getting back on their feet after release.

But one local organization is working to fill in the gaps, finding success on building others back up.

“It’s real easy to blame everybody else for the way you’re acting, and why you are the way you are,” explained Matthew Donaldson, who spent two years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. “But when you stop and take responsibility that this is all your fault, and you let God search you, and show you the things you need to change, that’s when life will really start changing.”

Life for Matthew now is far different from how it was before.

But for him, his sense of personal accountability stems not only from his faith but from the help of others.

“You get a little bit of networking, you get to start meeting other people in the community that are trying to do the same thing you are,” he said.

Matthew is a recent graduate of Churches Embracing Offenders, and he says the program has helped keep him from continuing down a dark path:

“Using drugs, alcohol, and basically just trying to do anything to not feel what was going on inside of me.”

A former EMT and volunteer firefighter, part of Matthew’s daily life before prison was being haunted by what he saw on the job.

He was determined to make his nightmares end–by any means.

“I had a plan to commit suicide by cop,” Matthew explained.

He stole a car and led officers on a wild chase through barricades, armed with a BB gun.

“I was standing through the woods, crying out to God. And that’s when He spoke to me. He said, ‘When are you going to stop running from Me?’ And I stopped. I surrendered to the police, I surrendered to the judge. And I went to prison six days after I got arrested.”

The structure and order of prison, along with the mental health treatment he got, helped him get his life back in order.

But Matthew knew he needed his faith–and more–to make it on the outside.

“Everything in my past is gone now. I don’t live that way any more. But I know that God doesn’t want me to waste all those years of my life. So all those things that I went through have now created a passion in me to help others overcome the same thing that God’s helped me overcome,” explained Westin Leach.

Westin’s calling led him to not only graduate from the program of Churches Embracing Offenders, but to become its Executive Director.

He’s incorporated his firsthand experience into making others successful.

“We teach them a new way to live. Whether you’re six months old, or sixty years old, you don’t do anything you haven’t been taught to do,” he said.

And with those classes–where 79 former offenders are now–Westin says their re-offender rate is 1.2%.

That’s far below Indiana’s statewide rate of nearly 34% of former inmates going back to prison.

But, both Westin and Matthew say it’s going to take a community effort to not only help former offenders reintegrate, but learn.

“If you’re a member of a church, and this feels like something you want to get involved in–discipling people when they get out of prison or jail, speak to the leaders of your church.”

If you’re interested in finding out more on how to help those who have paid their debt to society reenter society, or need help yourself, click here.



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