St. Vincent de Paul Conference promotes mercy for former convicts

ORLANDO  |  Mykal Tairu grew up believing his father lived in Nigeria, and it wasn’t until after he graduated from high school that his mother told him the truth — that his father was incarcerated in a prison two hours away.

Tairu began building a relationship with his father when he was released, but he returned to prison two years later. Tairu attributed his father’s return to jail because of bad choices, but also a lack of ways for him to become a contributing member of society.“He would go apply for jobs and doors would shut in his face. He had the work ethic. He needed the opportunity,” he said. “This country does not allow (convicted) individuals to re-enter back into society.”

Tairu, who saw a problem with the system, is now the state coordinator for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Re-entry Project. He was one of 115 participants at the recent St. Vincent de Paul Conference in Orlando that drew volunteers from around the state to learn about different topics such as fundraising, sharing best practices and fellowship. St. Vincent de Paul is a society made up of 160,000 volunteers who visit homes, prisons and hospitals among other charity work.

Todd Coulter, southeast regional spiritual adviser for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., spoke at the conference and said serving with the society is an opportunity to come face to face with God by performing the corporal acts of mercy: to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned.

“When we go as Vincetians to homes, go to the bedside, we encounter the face of Jesus,” he said.

Coulter, a father of eight children, said he was reluctant when he was called to visit the inmates at Harris County Jail in Mississippi, which housed murderers, rapists and child molesters, but he found Jesus as he sat across from one of the inmates, who he addressed as “Mr. Jones.”

“I said, ‘Mr. Jones, we are afraid of you and I am afraid of you, but God loves you and I am a child of God and I love you also. But because we are afraid of you, and you have done things that have threatened us in society, you are going to be punished.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and began to sob. I was overwhelmed, and that is Vincentian ministry, and that is when I come face to face with God himself.”

Coulter said nobody wants to take care of sex offenders, have them live in their neighborhoods or let them work in the soup kitchen and stores.

“Nobody but the adopted sons and daughters of God, and nobody but the St. Vincent de Paul Society,” he said.

Trace Trylco, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Orlando, said he was ready to pass on an applicant who hadn’t checked the prior conviction box on the application until he met with him. He said he decided to give this person a chance and hired him for a part-time position. He has since risen up through the ranks and is now manager of one of the stores, which has seen a 16 percent growth.

“I met with him and said if St. Vincent de Paul couldn’t give him a chance, who would?” Trylco said.

To help address the stigma of having a conviction, Tairu spoke on “Returning Citizens: Knocking Down Structural Barriers,” and his work in bringing justice to those released from prison through the “Ban the Box” initiative. The “box” on a job application is a barrier to jobs because it discourages people from applying and employers from hiring qualified workers. HB553/SB244 would prohibit public employers and post-secondary institutions from inquiring into or considering an applicant’s criminal history based on initial employment applications unless required by law.

“Charity involves meeting the direct need of our neighbors. On the other end of the paradigm is justice,” he said. “Imagine a world where folks who get out of prison are rehabilitated and become contributing members of society and not have to depend on organizations like St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities. That is what justice looks like, and that picture can be a reality. “

An estimated 1.54 million Floridians have a criminal record. So far, 19 states and more than 100 cities and counties around the country have adopted fair-chance policies including the cities of Daytona Beach, Tampa, Tallahassee and Orlando. Major employers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot have removed the question about convictions from their initial job applications.

To assist people with jobs after being released from prison, St. Peter Claver Prison Ministry in Apopka is working with individuals released from prison by putting them through a 100-day program that involves food stamps, housing and getting them a job within a week.

Tony Calabro, a volunteer with St. Peter Claver who attended the conference, said the program has a 95 percent success rate and costs $3,000 per individual compared to the $31,000 it costs for that individual to be imprisoned per year.

“It’s very hard to get out (of prison) and get a place or home,” he said. “Now they’re here to be productive members of society.”

Cheryl Bailey, vice president of the district council at Sacred Heart conference in Punta Gorda, has volunteered with St. Vincent de Paul for 18 years and worked with the prison ministry for eight.

“A lot of people feel that people released from prison got what they deserved,” she said. “We are trying to change that mindset and help people realize that ex-offenders can become good citizens if we only give them a chance.”

Individuals interested in supporting the work of the Re-entry Project can attend Catholic Days at the Capitol in April and support SB 22(Clemens) and HB 553 (Alexander).