When I swam, I liked to swim way out,
Beyond the ropes and the rest.
When I visited the woods,
To go farther off the trail I did my best.
Today I am much the same,
Motivated by the same spirit no doubt.
Radical freedom has a grip on me,
Now isn’t that way-out?
Jesse was the first of three powerful new poets to share their work this past Thursday at a fundraiser for St. Leonard’s Ministries and a book launch for Finding Freedom: Portraits and Poems of Former Inmates at a Halfway House This new art book is a collaborative project between Brandon Crockett, a community volunteer and advertising copywriter, and the renowned photographer Sandro Miller. The book features poetry and portraits from residents at St. Leonard’s — individuals who have recently left prison and are attempting to reintegrate with society.
For the past seven years, Crockett has led a monthly poetry class at St. Leonard’s, through which he collected hundreds of handwritten poems. Early last year, he wrote to Miller asking the photographer if he was willing to photograph the residents of the house. Miller enthusiastically agreed, and for the next 12 months, the duo held five separate photo shoots that resulted in 65 portraits.
Brandon hopes this photo book will spark conversation about keeping low-level offenders away from jail and in programs like the one St. Leonard’s Ministries offers. The money raised will be used for production costs, and any additional funds will be donated to St. Leonard’s to further help individuals continue on the path to Finding Freedom.
Founded in 1954, St. Leonard’s Ministries on Chicago’s Near West Side provides case management and residential units for 115 men and women, as well as employment services for formerly-incarcerated men and women at the Michael Barlow Center, which opened in 2005. Michael Barlow was a former resident and staff member at St. Leonard’s Ministries. His commitment to rebuilding his own life touched the hearts of everyone he met. When he died in 1996, he left behind a legacy of hope for those who would follow him through the doors of St. Leonard’s Ministries.
The Barlow Center (which my wife Lynne Cunningham has directed for the last four years) offers skills training, education and employment programs, and a state-of-the-art computer lab. Clients can earn high school diplomas, connect with counselors and hook up with employers once programs are completed. Each year, approximately 225 men and women receive services; 50 individuals complete the high school program; and 60 students complete skills training classes. About 70% of those coming to the Barlow Center obtain employment.
The event also acknowledged Bob Dougherty, St. Leonard’s former Executive Director from 1987 thru 2013. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle introduced Bob as a Criminal Justice Champion and the “most decent, self-effacing person” she knows. Bob introduced himself as a “recovering English teacher” from his days teaching high school with Toni teaching history. In introducing the evening’s poets, he referenced the title of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in noting how quickly prison can put out the song that souls need to sing.
Walter Boyd, current Executive Director, observed in closing that he has never seen participants who did not work hard to change their lives. The take-away message that “Second Chances Are Sweet” was the tag tied to the hand-made candies prepared by students in the 220-hour Barlow Center Basic Culinary Skills program, preparing individuals for positions in the food service industry.
This week’s U2Cando lyrics are offered by Bob Dougherty as his favorite:
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father, brothers all are we,
Let me walk with my brother, in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now,
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow,
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!
Let There Be Peace on Earth
by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller