49-9 Project“It was the worst time in my life. No one wanted anything to do with me, but The Salvation Army stuck with me...”
“I will say to the prisoners, ‘Come out in freedom,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Come into the light.’ They will be my sheep, grazing in green pastures and on hills that were previously bare” (Isaiah 49:9). These words form the basis of the 49-9 Project, a prison and community reentry ministry and outreach in the Northeast Ohio Division. They really hit home for me while developing the program. Not only had I experienced incarceration, but I dealt with a very dark time when my ex-wife, the mother of my children, was endangered by a former boyfriend who had served prison time.
On October 8, 2004, I was released from prison and dropped off at The Salvation Army Wooster, OH corps’ emergency shelter. The compassion shown by staff and especially then-commanding officer Major Mary West changed my life. Thirteen months after entering the shelter, I was hired by The Salvation Army and I’m now in my 18th year of employment here.
In November 2012, my ex-wife was taken hostage and shot by a former boyfriend whom she’d been dating after his release from prison. He didn’t take their breakup well and broke into her home, starting a 30-hour standoff which ended with his death. My ex-wife was further injured and permanently disabled in the rescue attempt. Between this event and my own experiences with the legal system, I knew I had to do something to help. So, I started doing research to figure out what kind of program I could create.
The basic tenets of the 49-9 Project include goals to reduce recidivism (the likelihood of repeated criminal offense) by stabilizing the lives of ex-offenders and sharing a redemptive message with the incarcerated.
The program has expanded from serving 49 people in 2013 to 727 people in 2022. Through the first seven months of 2023, we have already touched 572 lives with direct assistance. In addition to direct assistance, clients also receive case management where their needs, goals and desires are discussed so we can work together toward creating and implementing an individualized reentry plan.
As a part of the program, I also facilitate classes inside correctional facilities promoting emotional and spiritual literacy. While classes on topics like budgeting and resume writing are important, I believe that unless the root causes of incarceration are addressed, a person is more likely to reoffend. As such, the classes I teach focus on recognizing our inner good, our core selves, and using that to make peace with the past and move ahead in a new, positive way. As the class material states, “it’s like removing the lampshade so the true light can shine forth.”
I was honored to receive the National Award for Excellence in Corrections from The Salvation Army in August 2016 for my work with the 49-9 Project. Last March, Northeast Ohio divisional leadership appointed me the full-time director of the program as it continues to grow and serve.
The 49-9 Project has helped many people through various stages of reentry and recovery. Some we see from start to finish; others we lay the groundwork for. One exemplary graduate contacted me a few months ago with a touching message: “Thank you! You may not remember me, but you saved my life several times a few years ago. I just wanted to let you know I am doing good because of all you did.”
Another 49-9 alum was incarcerated at Northeast Reintegration Center in Cleveland and attended my classes. During the sessions, she came to understand how she needed to change to be successful. After her release, she stayed in contact with the program, and we were able to help her get reestablished by taking care of an old utility bill, paying her rent deposit and working with her to get her driver’s license reinstated. She realized that all her issues would take time to solve, but we continued to work with her. She stayed strong and sober and now has a job transporting workers to various locations around her county. She’s nearly six years out of prison and is regaining custody of her daughter.
One woman who came through the program was a domestic violence survivor who turned to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain and stress of her situation. After a lengthy stay in a county jail in 2018, she came to us, having lost her career and with no idea of where to turn next. Along with stabilizing her financial situation through paying utilities, we provided transportation to court hearings and probation appointments, and through case management helped her to see the value she has and rediscover who she is. Five years later, we are still supporting her and she has begun getting back into her former occupation. She’s described us as angels for all we have done to assist her in getting her life back on track.
A man came to us in 2018 while awaiting trial in a local jail. We advocated with the courts for him, but due to the nature of the offense, he was given prison time. “It was the worst time of my life. No one wanted anything to do with me, but The Salvation Army stuck with me and supported me through the whole sentence,” he said. When he was released in 2021, we helped him find a place to live and get furnishings. We worked with him to help him get his driver’s license back and assisted in finding employment. “They never looked at me as a [convict]. I was a person in need, and they did everything they could to make me stable and get me back to being productive.”
He still has struggles, including some relapses into substance abuse, but he continues to get stronger, and those lapses are becoming fewer and further between. “I know, no matter what, they’ll help me through this, and I’m going to be okay.”
Stories like these inspire everyone at the 49-9 Project to keep doing the Lord’s work. Even with all the unpredictable highs and lows, this is a personal ministry, and an important one.