MANATEE -- Joseph Brice is an eight-time loser.
He gave himself that label to reflect the number of times he has been incarcerated on drug charges, then returned to the same lifestyle.
Since his most recent release from prison in February, however, Brice says he is determined to win this time around -- with the help of a Salvation Army faith-based transition program that helps ex-convicts get back on their feet by providing job and life skills, along with rehabilitation and prevention classes. Graduation means finding employment and a place to live.
But fewer people will get this kind of help after state budget cuts forced the organization to sign a new contract with the Florida Department of Corrections that allows only five ex-cons to be helped at a time instead of 12.
DOC pays $20 a night per participant to cover the costs, according to Christine Smith, the Salvation Army’s community relations and development director. The slash in funding also means the position of faith-based program manager, now held by Christopher Walker, will be eliminated.
“First of all, I just feel blessed that I had the opportunity for six years to be involved with these 369 men,” said Walker, referring to the number of people who have participated in the program since 2007 when he became involved. “We have a 58 percent success rate. I just feel blessed that I had the opportunity to help them change their lives.”
In 2008 and 2009, 37,391 inmates were released back into their communities, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Studies have shown that most offenders are likely to return to prison if they are not equipped with the skills needed to succeed in the work world.
The cut in funding means that come July 1, those in the program will no longer have a staff member devoted to them.
The program will be integrated with the Salvation Army’s other transitional program, Turning Points.
“The men currently in the program, they are welcome to stay until they find employment and can work their way out of the program,” said Major Bob Parker, area coordinator for the Salvation Army.
“We’ve committed to them we are not going to show them the door. It just won’t be the same program because we won’t be able to get a staff manager.”
There are other transitional programs in the county that former convicts can enroll in, such as Project 180, a nonprofit organization based in Sarasota, and Florida Integrity Training, a nonprofit based in Bradenton.
Parker, along with others involved with the Salvation Army program, say the biggest hit will be losing Walker.
“You can’t ask for anyone better,” Brice,56, said. “If he can help you, he will help you.”
Brice says Walker was the reason he came into the program. He’d just gotten out of prison and was standing in line at the Salvation Army when Walker approached him.
The two began to talk and Brice decided he would apply for the program.
“The first day, I said ‘This ain’t going to work,’” Brice said. “But the guys said, ‘You can do it, man,’ and pushed me. It worked for the best.”
And he is not the only one who has benefited.
Leon Yawn, 58, has been incarcerated on and off for over two decades and has been using drugs for just as long. He is in the Salvation Army’s program now, and he credits it for his sobriety. He was in prison for about three years and said this is the first time he is truly sober.
“I don’t count prison” as time being sober, he said. “It feels good. It’s scary, too. Accepting change is scary.”
Thanks to the program, Yawn now has a talking relationship with his family and feels respected by his peers.
“I’m learning about responsibility, and it feels good,” Yawn said. Walker “doesn’t group you, that makes him unique. He is real concerned about how you do.”
Both men said others can benefit from the program if they are willing to get the help. They are concerned that the program that has helped them turn their lives around will not be available for others after the cuts.
Because, they say, if help isn’t provided, street life is easy to turn back to.
“You want an income, money, food, and if you can’t get them legally you’ll get them illegally,” Yawn said. “You can only fool yourself. You can’t change unless you want it.”
Although change is inevitable for the Salvation Army’s program, Parker said they are still committed to helping those in the community.
And Walker, who is seeking other opportunities to make a difference, is certain that some good will come from this change.
“I am prayerful that God has something in store for me,” Walker said.
“I’m happy that this place was here for someone to come in our community to become successful and independent.”
Paradise Afshar, Herald writer, can be reached at 745-7024.