A new beginning: RENEW program offers former inmates help starting over

A man named David showed up at the Catholic Charities offices in downtown Columbia a few months ago in a desperate situation.

He had just been released from prison after serving 30 years, and had no money, identification or job prospects. He was illiterate and living on the streets. David had lost touch with his family in West Vir­ginia and had no idea where to turn.

Thanks to RENEW, a new Catholic Charities program, David found the help he needed.

RENEW focuses on getting men and women newly released from cor­rectional facilities in the Midlands the resources they need to re-enter society, said Gilbert “Nikki” Grim­ball, program specialist for prison ministry with Catholic Charities.

“The goal is to walk people back to independence and self-awareness, to find out what they need and then show them what they are capable of doing,” Grimball said.

A re-entry program is especially important in a place like Columbia because many former inmates from area jails and prisons are released with little more than the clothes on their backs. Often those are not even adequate — David was walking around in the same pair of shower shoes he had used while still inside.

Many men and women who are newly released have no money and, like David, struggle with illiteracy or learning disabilities. Often they have no family or have lost touch with relatives. As a result, many former inmates often fall into a cycle of homeless­ness and poverty, and eventually too many end up back in prison.

“We have people show up at our of­fice almost weekly who have been newly released, and have nowhere to go, and we asked ourselves if there was a way to reach people before they ended up on the street,” said Leisa Lipscomb, region­al coordinator for Catholic Charities in Columbia.

RENEW is a team effort. Staff members and volunteers do their part to find what each client needs to begin the road back to a productive life. They work with other agencies in the area so they don’t duplicate services.

In David’s case, he first needed clean clothes. Without any identi­fication, he was unable to secure a place at a homeless shelter, but Grimball was eventually able to get him a space at Oli­ver Gospel Mission downtown.

Then there was the painstaking process of helping him obtain iden­tification. Sergio Braga, a volunteer, stepped in to help David with that task and discov­ered how hard it was.

“He needed to regain a Social Security card, and we found out what a dehumanizing process that can be, just to try to get that form of ID back,” Braga said. “It was difficult enough for us when I was side by side with him, and I can see how people would give up if they were trying to do this on their own.”

Eventually, things fell into place for David. Grimball said he was able to locate a sister in West Virginia and recently boarded a bus to head back there, where he will live with her and receive further help from Catholic Charities in that area.

He has kept in regular touch with Grimball and others at RENEW since he returned home a few weeks ago.

Other clients have already arrived for assistance through RENEW, and plans are currently in the works to set up a permanent place for the program in the training room at Manning Correctional Institute in north Columbia. About 80 to 100 men are brought there each month from other facilities to begin a six-month cycle of preparing for release.

There, Grimball and other Catholic Charities workers and volunteers will work with rotating groups of inmates before they are released. The men will take part in an eight-week program to help them develop skills and resources they need to get a better start.

“We’ll be there looking for men who are indigent, those who are likely to be homeless when they get out, those with other needs,” Grimball said. “If someone has had a problem with drugs or alcohol, we want to help them find treatment. The goal is to be on site two or three days a week and to be a consistent presence. These men have lost trust in themselves and in society and they need someone to work side by side with them.”