Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories The Pantagraph will publish on the challenges facing people after their release from prison, including issues they confront in housing and employment, and re-entry efforts at the state and federal levels.
BLOOMINGTON — Michelle Cook has never lived behind bars, but she knows the uphill battle people face when they step back into society in search of a place to live and a job — when they are not always welcome.
As director of the Bloomington's Jobs Partnership program, Cook has spent seven years working with hundreds of people starting over after a life-altering stretch of bad fortune and bad choices.
For some, it was the trauma of divorce or addiction. For others, the process of rebuilding is a mix of losses made more difficult by the stain of a criminal conviction.
As they gather two nights a week around an oversized square of tables at the Washington Square East building near downtown, participants learn life skills to help them succeed. They also support each other through the daily ups and down of a new life diminished in some way by past mistakes.
A retired nurse who moved to Bloomington 20 years ago, Cook considers her experiences growing up as a black child on a farm east of Springfield as part of her training for a ministry of helping others. Being forced to stand on a school bus was one of those lessons.
"When I was 5, some high school guys decided to rip my clothes off me. They left me standing on the bus in my underwear, lace anklets and shoes. The bus driver put me off and left me in the ice and snow. So, God was preparing me all my life to do this type of program," recalled Cook, now 75.
Since Cook has led the jobs program sponsored by the Joy Care Center, more than 700 men and women have participated and only 15 have returned to the Department of Corrections, according to the faith-based agency that helps ex-offenders avoid returning to prison and become productive members of society.
Cook points to an 89 percent employment rate — a success she attributes to the relationship the group has with about 70 local employers willing to give ex-offenders a chance.
"Everybody is in a phase of forward movement," said Cook.
At a recent meeting, several people spoke of newly-acquired jobs in retail, trucking and at restaurants. Longtime members serve as mentors for new, former offenders.
Ron Wegner joined the program about five years ago as part of his spiritual growth and recovery efforts.
"I feel like I'm a survivor. I had to be the best at being the worst. Now I just want to be involved," said Wegner, who plans to lead the group when Cook steps back from her role in several months.
Wegner, who struggled with drug use for decades, would like to see more housing made available for ex-offenders.
"Housing is the biggest issue. I'd like to have transitional housing to help people get on their feet," he said.
Sue Epstein, a retired nurse who work with Cook in Chicago, became involved with the program in 2011 after she moved to Bloomington.
"This group represents amazing people who are an inspiration to me. You see God's work in their potential," she said.
Cook was one of the first people Karrissa Meredith met when she was arrested in 2012 for criminal drug conspiracy. The 20-year-old had skipped work that day — a combination of nice weather and self-indulgence — and was in her apartment when Bloomington police arrested her roommate for dealing cocaine.
Meredith claims she was not part of any drug activity involving the roommate, who avoided charges by cooperating with police on other drug investigations.
A plea to a lesser drug charge included probation, almost $5,000 in fines and a felony record for Meredith who describes the situation as "being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I lost everything. I had to start over and prove myself," said Meredith, now 25 and nearing graduation from Heartland Community College where she is studying to be a paralegal.
After two months in jail, Meredith was able to return to her job with a gourmet coffee store, but her supervisory position had been filled.
"I came back at the lowest level. I went from supervising people to emptying garbage cans," said Meredith. But in a few months, Meredith had moved up the ladder again and was chosen to help with the opening of a new store in Peoria.
Meredith has kept her connection with Jobs Partnership and plans to attend a job fair sponsored by the group after she graduates, when she will start looking for another job.
She knows there will be challenges.
"It still affects me to this day. You have to prove to society every single day you're not (a) mistake. I have to work 10 times harder when I get a job," she said.