HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — A nonprofit organization in Holland will expand its ex-prisoner ministry into Muskegon County after receiving a federal grant for an alternative sentencing program.
The 70×7 Life Recovery organization has been working in Ottawa County since 2007. It provides mentoring, job skills training, life training and recovery support for people who have previously been incarcerated.
“We recognize the key to life change really comes through the relationship, and in order to do that, we have to meet people at points of need,” Brian Vork, the executive director for 70×7, said.
The program will now expand its services to Muskegon with a new work release program. The organization received a $2 million grant for an alternative sentencing program that will give people who would be going to prison the opportunity to get trained for employment.
“What people don’t understand is that when an individual is returning to the community from jail or prison with a felony, there are many doors that are closed,” said Vork.
The program is called EXIT, which stands for “Empowering Ex-Offenders in Transition.” It will be provided to 250 felony-convicted parents of young children. Participants must be nonviolent offenders. Veterans will receive priority.
“This is used as a way to really prevent breaking up the family and especially during a time that is crucial for child development,” said Vork.
Ferman Sims, who is a father to a now-14-year-old boy and was previously incarcerated, knows that feeling.
“The separation between me and my son really hit me hard,” said Sims.
He was charged with aggravated assault, then released on bond. He then got into more trouble after being charged with robbery and ended up with an 11-year prison sentence.
“Being warehoused with a bunch of other guys who are pretty angry is not conducive to change,” Sims said.
Sims wanted to be able to provide for his family when he got out of prison. His sister, who lives in Jenison, found 70×7 and told him about it. Sims reached out to the organization and went through its recovery program.
“Meeting people from the community that even if they didn’t understand completely, they would lend an ear and work with you and talk to you. I’ve continued a friendship with my mentor even after the two-year period. We meet regularly, especially when my son comes up to visit me from Texas,” said Sims.
He believes 70×7 changed his life. The organization helped set him up with a job at Zeeland Lumber, where he has worked for more than two years.
“I thought, ‘I’m not gonna have a chance of getting a job’ at the time, but was shocked to meet people and employers who really cared,” said Sims.
Sims has a new perspective on life and believes his prison sentence shaped who he is today.
“It was a good thing. I don’t have any bitterness towards the system. The system did what it was supposed to do. I was in the wrong, I was tried, I was convicted and I have changed,” Sims told 24 Hour News 8.
Officials from 70×7 believe the EXIT program will bring change to Muskegon County, as well, where about 400 people are sent to prison each year.
“The demographics of Muskegon, from what I’ve been told, accurately reflect the demographics of some of the larger communities in the state. The Muskegon County prosecutor and the sheriff’s department were two of the biggest proponents to what we’re doing. They spoke a lot in to the design of this program, so they really understand the needs of the community,” said Vork.
Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 in a phone interview that he believes the EXIT program is a “proactive approach to reducing crime in the area.”
“It is important to work with them, to teach them and get them acclimated to being back in society,” Hilson said.
The program will kick off in October.