"I WANT to be a brick in something good because I've been a pebble in something bad."
The something bad in Don Buchanan's life was armed robbery and other offenses for which he spent almost half his 50 years in jail. He started young, and foolish, by dropping out of Germantown High and "traded my education for the streets."
I met Buchanan and other ex-cons at a transition ceremony between two six-week sessions of Philly ReNew, a re-entry program of cognitive-behavior therapy run by the Pennsylvania Prison Society. More than just training them for jobs, Philly ReNew's biggest value, as I see it, is giving ex-cons who volunteer for the program a new way of thinking, starting with accepting responsibility for their crimes.
Since its start in 2008, about 450 men — all fathers, it's a requirement of the program — have "graduated," most to jobs or school. The most impressive statistic: Only 30 percent of the men return to crime, while the state recidivism rate is 55 percent.
That's impressive, but because of Gov. Corbett's budget cuts, the $600,000 annual funding ends June 30.
To me, $600,000 is a small investment for a proven program that changes men's lives and sends them back to their communities as positive role models. The cost of incarcerating one man in a state correctional facility for one year is $33,000, while the per-man cost of Philly ReNew is $4,500. Where is the money better spent?
Without the program, more ex-offenders will likely return to jail, after victimizing an innocent person, like me or you.
Since the men are criminals, you're entitled to ask how the Philly ReNew staff can be sure the men are sincere, not ex-cons running a con. I did ask that of life-skills educator Cameron Holmes, who says they are a "self-selected group of men" who are here "because they want to be here."
It would be hard to get over on Holmes, who spent 21 of his 50 years in jail for a string of home-invasion robberies. Some Philly ReNew participants, he admits, come in thinking it will just help them get a job. Pretty soon, "they realize this is more than getting a job; it's getting a life."
Buchanan's epiphany came "when I stopped making myself out to be the victim, laying the things on my environment, laying things on Philadelphia, and I had to take responsibility because I made conscious choices and there were other choices available."
At the transition ceremony, each man sitting around a conference table was invited to talk about his daily positive thought. It sounds hokey, but it works. Each stood, introduced himself and offered the proper salutation. Most were properly dressed and spoke in a loud, clear voice — things Philly ReNew taught them about projecting a good image.
I asked one man why he had come to the program.
"I could say I did it for myself, but I did it for my mom and my kids," says 32-year-old Kelly Holmes (no relation to Cameron).
He got out of jail in 2007 after eight years for selling drugs, went through Philly ReNew and almost immediately found a job, which is unusual. He's a welder, but his three children — Kelly Jr., 2; Yahsir, 5; Amiyah, 11 — are the focus of his life now. He is determined to be the father to them that he never had.
The same is true of Buchanan, as regards to his kids, but not as regards to his hunt for a job. He came through Philly ReNew last year and hasn't found work even though he's submitted dozens of applications from the halfway house where he lives.
"I'm being tested and I'm not going to fail this test," says Buchanan, who projects smarts and confidence. "You've got to get a whole lot of ‘nos' before you get your ‘yes.' I'm just getting my ‘nos' now."
It is a shame, and self-defeating, that Philly ReNew is getting its "no" from the state.