By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
Who among us has not fallen short? Who among us has not needed a second chance, or more?
That theme underlay the 11th annual "Giving People a Second Chance" community breakfast. This year's event honored the life and legacy of the late Sen. Jackie Winters. She was a devoted supporter of the Marion County Reentry Initiative.
The initiative helps individuals make positive transitions from the criminal justice system – particularly incarceration – back into the community. "What it means is this: People are getting jobs. People are reuniting with families. People are contributing to our community," county Undersheriff Jeff Wood told the audience.
The breakfast, held Oct. 1 at the Keizer Community Center, raised more than $20,000 for the De Muniz Resource Center to help program clients obtain identification, education, and employment.
In opening the gathering, Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark set the tone of honoring Winters through carrying her work forward.
"It is because of the strength of our communities – Salem, Keizer, Marion and Polk counties together – that we can come together as families and make sure that every person has the chance to be treated with dignity and respect," Clark said.
Congressman Kurt Schrader talked about how Winters was emblematic of second chances, of compassion and of collaboration. He and Winters served together in the Oregon Legislature. Despite coming from different backgrounds and different political parties, they found common ground on children and family issues.
When Winters was in the Republican majority, she didn't send Democrat Schrader to the sidelines. Instead, she expected him to pull his weight. When he later led the budget committee, Winters would not let him overlook the importance of funding dental care. She taught him that people need a good smile to get a good job.
"A Legacy of Giving People a Second Chance," a video shown at the breakfast, featured clips of Winters' remarks at the Second Chance breakfast in 2010. She spoke of an ex-inmate who became a giver instead of a taker, a taxpayer instead of a drain on the tax system, and a father to four stepsons.
What was it, she asked, that caused Gov. Tom McCall to take a risk and courageously add someone to his staff who probably was deemed beyond redemption? Whatever his reasons, she applauded McCall for hiring Ted Winters, who became her husband.
For people exiting prison, Winters said, the barriers to obtaining housing, finding employment and erasing societal stigma probably are far greater now than in 1968. "We have placed a lot more obstacles and laws in the way of people making that transition back, and I think that's a tragedy."
A second video presented the story of Ali, a successful participant in Marion County's Family Sentencing Alternative Program (FSAP). Life's difficulties caused her to relapse into drug use. But because of her commitment to her children, she was motivated to engage in the intensive supervision, treatment, and parenting programs offered through FSAP. The program allows continued parenting by diverting non-violent offenders from prison to Community Corrections.
Ali attended the breakfast and received a standing ovation after the video concluded. "There are 300 people here that love you and appreciate all you've done," County Commissioner Kevin Cameron, who emceed the program, told her.
Community Corrections staff members emphasized that their clients, like Ali, are more than a criminal history. They are someone's son or daughter, mom or dad, brother or sister. Families and the community are better off when they are held accountable but also supported in making positive changes.
Cameron urged participants to follow Winters' example and look outward to serve others in their leadership, mentoring, and funding.
Marion County's second chance programs are more time-intensive for Community Corrections staff but less expensive for Oregon taxpayers than housing someone in prison. The irony is that Marion County then gets less funding, despite its higher workload, because of its success in reducing recidivism.
Salem-Keizer Schools Superintendent Christy Perry closed the program by emphasizing that students and adults respond to having a caring adult who is invested in them.
"The Marion County Reentry Program actually invests in people," she said. "It invests in people in real ways to mentor people and to help them reach their goals and dreams."