Our vision in 2020

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 for me.

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 have known.

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 opportunity.

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 deep.

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