You know when something just feels right?
That’s how I feel about our vision for replicating small
Turning Leaf centers across South Carolina.
But it wasn’t a clear-cut decision. In fact, I soul searched
for much of last year to land here. See, going into 2019 we had another plan to
scale. That strategy involved growing our Charleston site into a large reentry
center, enrolling 150 men a year. I’d always had a vision of running a large
reentry center. A two-story building, multiple classrooms, a state-of-the-art
training and conference room. The hustle and bustle of the day. That’s a vision
I’d been working towards for years.
Nearing the end of 2018, we started making moves to make
that dream a reality. I hired two new staff. Adam came on board to handle job
placement and screen-printing sales. Blue joined us as a recruiter to get more
men in the door. We were right on track heading into 2019. The only thing left
to do was ramp up enrollment. Blue recruited and we waited. He recruited some
more and we waited some more. But the spike in phone calls and assessments and
first days in the classroom never came. Sure, we saw new faces, but it became
pretty clear pretty fast that we weren’t going to come anywhere close to
hitting enrollment numbers needed to grow into a large reentry organization
without compromising our program model. Damn.
My dream of that large reentry center started fading away.
I took the spring and summer of 2019 to re-evaluate the
future of Turning Leaf. It was a critical decision, and I didn’t know which way
to go. Lack of clarity is not a good look for me. My brain operates best in
execution mode, with a clear vision and an actionable plan. Instead, I drifted
through part of last year, trying to reconcile my vision of the large reentry
center with the reality that Charleston doesn’t have a dense enough population
of men returning home from prison to make it a reality. It was a difficult time
Conversations and meditation, dream boards and letters to
myself, back of the napkin diagrams and pen to paper goal setting ultimately
led me to two choices. The first option was that we grow our Charleston
location into a training center for other organizations doing reentry work
around the state and country. We would still work with a small group of men coming
home from prison, but organizational growth would be focused on training in our
cognitive behavioral curriculum and best practices in how to deliver effective
reentry services. I liked the idea. It spoke to my interests and my strengths.
I love to create and to train. I love to
test new content and share it with others. I love the idea of elevating the
quality of reentry services across the country. It fit with my vision of
running a large center. I was leaning hard in this direction. It sounded fun
and rewarding and…well…easy.
Or…we could replicate small Turning Leaf reentry centers
around South Carolina. We could create a statewide network of reentry. Men
coming home from prison all over the state would have the option to get help
after their release. And because we’d be enrolling a lot more men, we could
evaluate the program. Really evaluate it. And then, we could take the
model nationally. We’d have a chance to become the first McDonald’s of prison
reentry. People coming home from prison in every state across the country could
benefit from what we’re doing here in Charleston. We could leave a legacy. We
could be a game changer. But it would be a lot more work, and a lot less fun.
Just straight up grinding and raising money and selling the program the hard
way. It didn’t speak to my interests or my strengths. Operations, fundraising,
managing people and money. Grant reporting and board meetings and budgets. Ugh.
And an evaluation means truly knowing if the program works. Most social service
agencies spend their entire lifetime only believing that they’re making an
impact, but never really knowing. Knowing is a scary and vulnerable place to
be. This was the riskier and harder option.
One of the things we teach our Turning Leaf students is to
make life decisions not based on what feels good today, but on where you want
to go in the future. We help our men understand that reaching long-term goals
always requires the sacrifice of immediate gratification. Creating. Training.
Fun. Easy. Operations. Fundraising. Risky. Difficult. Where do I want to end
up? What do I want to leave behind? Which choice leaves me with no regrets?
This was my soul searching of last year. Nobody would have judged me for going
with option #1. Nobody would have seen this as my easy way out. But I would
Instead I took my desire to create and train and put it on a
shelf. I took my desire to work with other reentry groups across the country
and stored it away. Not forever, just for now. I made the decision to replicate
across the state. I doubled down on Turning Leaf. I doubled down on what I know
is already the best reentry organization in the country. We’re small, but we’re
the best. That means we’re the best chance this country has right now to reform
our approach to prison reentry programming. That’s a privilege and a
responsibility I take very, very seriously.
The coolest thing happened after I fully committed to option
#2. The vision of my large reentry center reconciled. Our Charleston site will
be a large center one day. But it won’t be large because we’re going to enroll
a lot of men coming home from prison. And it won’t be large because we’re going
to be training other groups across the country in our curriculum and best
practices. It’s going to be large because it will be our home base and training
center for all the other Turning Leaf sites around the state and country. The
puzzle piece in my mind finally locked into place.
When I first started working on Turning Leaf in 2012, I
remember thinking all the time, “I just want the opportunity.” I wanted the
opportunity to see if I could start the project. To see if I could make it
successful. To prove that we could do better to help people coming out of
prison. I didn’t even care if I failed. I just wanted to be given the chance to
make the vision in my head a reality. After a few years of funding and support,
the thought eventually faded away. I had been given the opportunity and I made
the most of it. There is literally not a single day I walk into Turning Leaf
that I don’t feel incredibly lucky and grateful.
But that thought has now come back top of mind. I find
myself driving down the road, or looking out the window or cooking dinner, and
thinking, “I just want the opportunity.” I want the opportunity to prove that
we can replicate this project in a new city with the same outcomes. That I can
find another staff who is as good as this one. That we can create the first
McDonald’s of reentry. I don’t even care if I fail. I just want the
Having the opportunity requires that I raise money. I’m
making calls to our state legislators and driving to Columbia and sending
emails to our political leaders pleading the case for funding a Turning Leaf
statewide replication. I’m arguing for state fiscal responsibility. For
choosing Turning Leaf as the bargain option over the cost of prison and the
cost of crime. It’s hard for me to cold call and cold email and directly ask
our political leaders for state money and support. But it’s not about me. It
may work and it may not, but it won’t be because I didn’t ask.
As the first month of the new year ends, I remind myself,
“the days are long, but the years are short.” So true. I’m making the most of
my days over here at Turning Leaf and I hope you are too. I’ll stay in touch as
we make progress, face new challenges, find partners, change plans, and dig