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Catholic Charities helps ex-prisoners return to society
Monday, April 23, 2012 by MARK CIEMCIOCH

Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer - Doris Corley (seated), supervisor of central intake, Susan M. Miller (let), social worker, and Lorraine Brinsko, social worker, are working on newer efforts at the Catholic Charities central intake offices. The offices are located at 525 Washington St. in Buffalo.

A felon with a rap sheet, Juan Vasquez had few options when he took custody of his daughter early last year, but was three months behind on rent and didn’t have a job. 

“I had to swallow my pride and ask for help,” he said. “It was either that or go back to the streets, and I refuse to do that. I can’t raise my kids from a prison cell.” 

Vasquez turned to Catholic Charities, the diocesan social service organization that helps the poor, sick and disadvantaged throughout Western New York. Catholic Charities wrapped up its fundraising appeal week April 1, but donations will continue to be collected until June 30.

One of the services provided by Catholic Charities is its prisoner re-entry program to help clients like Vasquez, who are trying to adjust to life after prison. Ex-convicts face a number of challenges as they leave prison, including meetings with their parole officers and finding regular shelter and employment plus personal issues like reacquainting themselves with family and possible medical issues.

Catholic Charities offers the prisoner re-entry program as part of its mission to serve those people most in need with its Emergency and Basic Services program, offered at all of the social service agencies neighborhood and district offices. Doris Corley works as a supervisor at Catholic Charities’ Central Intake office on Washington Street in Buffalo.

“Because Catholic Charities is such a comprehensive agency, not all of the programs within Catholic Charities is going to be something (the client) can utilize,” she said. “We cater the services to the (individual).”

Both Corley and social worker Lorraine Brinsko admit they have family members who have served in prison, so the issue is very personal for them.

“They’re searching for a lot of help,” Brinsko said. “We also consider the family, because they suffer also from the beginning to the end. When (the ex-prisoner) coming out, the expectations of the family want them to go back to being the same (person), but there’s a period of adjustment.”

Inmates often send letters to agencies like Catholic Charities as they prepare to leave prison. Catholic Charities has an ex-prisoner orientation session to give them resources they can use as they adjust to society. The diocesan organization works with several other social service agencies as part of the Western New York Prisoner Re-Entry Coalition to help provide employment help, educational and occupational training, legal services and residential shelter.

“All of us work together in a collaborative effort,” Corley said. “We all know that no one agency can do it all. Our role is to help the individual transition back into the community. If we don’t provide one service, we know which service to link them up to.”

In 2011, Catholic Charities handled about 60 people through its orientation sessions, and worked with another 180 referrals to the agency. Corley said some of the most important moments in an ex-prisoner’s life are the 72 hours after he or she leaves prison.

“It’s critical,” she said. “When you come out, you have to make sure you connect, like going to the Department of Social Services to apply for housing assistance. You have to apply for any medical assistance you may need. You have to be reporting to your parole office.”

“We’re successful because we always meet one-on-one with them,” Brinsko said. “We actually have the chance to sit and assess them because it’s the intimacy that we have.”

Corley said it’s difficult for any ex-prisoner to readjust to the free world.

“Even though you’ve served your time, society still hasn’t forgiven you,” she said. “The pressure is on now.”

“They come out to a new world,” said Susan Miller, another social worker at Catholic Charities. “A lot of times, they come out rushing and do a lot a stuff, but we have to help them slow down and adjust.”

The goal at Catholic Charities is to help those clients who come in with an immediate crisis, which Corley estimates is 90 percent of the time, to leave in a more stable state.

“Our assessment is very comprehensive, to look at eliminating that crisis,” she said. “We get them to the point where they may be still vulnerable so they come back, but the end result is stable.”

Vasquez, 35, was attempting to overcome his multiple felonies when he turned to Catholic Charities. At the time, he was studying for a technical career at ITT Tech. He personally worked with Brinsko to help get his life back on track.

“I had just come home from prison and was going to school,” he said. “(Brinsko) did everything possible to help me out so I wouldn’t lose the apartment and stay at a shelter with my daughter. If it wasn’t for Lorraine and Catholic Charities, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

He is very thankful that his landlord was supportive of Vasquez when he was struggling with money.

“Because of my criminal background, a lot of employers didn’t want to hire me,” he said. “When I came home this time, I figured enough was enough. I was trying to get rich in the wrong ways (before), running the street.”

After working with Catholic Charities, Vasquez will graduate from ITT Tech with an associate’s degree this month and already has a job with Ingram Micro as a technical support technician. In addition, he has also signed a deal with Universal Records to produce hip-hop music, a lifetime passion of his. Executives discovered him after he posted some of his music on Facebook.

“The blessings are coming to me because I changed my ways,” Vasquez said. “If it was given to me when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated it.”

Vasquez sent Brinsko a note in March, thanking her for her help. He also invited her to his graduation ceremony at ITT Tech. Brinsko beamed with pride when she retold his story.

“With Juan, we could put a ‘case closed,’” she said. “The fact that he came back just to say thank you, that’s like … wow.”

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