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A CLEAR way forward

Ross Hayes understands what it’s like to leave prison and struggle. He was incarcerated for decades after being convicted of murder as a teenager. When he returned to the community, he needed support. He found one avenue for that support in CLEAR, a West Michigan group that exists to provide guidance and mentoring to returning citizens, while forging a positive relationship with law enforcement. Today, Hayes sits beside Grand Rapids Police Officer Dan Myers and helps serve as a facilitator for the group that includes about 20 men and a number of area service providers. Many of the men are on parole or were formerly incarcerated. They discuss topics that include forgiveness, establishing a positive support system and staying motivated. The room fills with a chorus of “amens” as speakers share stories or provide insight that resonates with others. “I want ya’ll to see that ya’ll can make it,” Hayes told the men sitting around the table in a Grand Rapids community center on a recent afternoon. “You’re all a support system for me too. Coming here is like Powerade to me. It’s rejuvenating.” A Partnership with Law Enforcement CLEAR, which stands for Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice, Rehabilitation, formed about a decade ago as a collaborative effort between the Grand Rapids Police Department and Michigan Department of Corrections. Its goal was to bring law enforcement, community resources and returning citizens together each week for an afternoon where they can connect and help ease the transition to the community, Myers said. “We sit down and have lunch together and talk about different topics,” Myers said. “It’s a very diverse group and its really unique in the way guys open up and support each other.” The concept has since expanded to Muskegon, and now also includes separate groups for women in both cities. Reaching Women Last year, Grand Rapids Police Officer Ruth Walters launched a CLEAR group focused on helping women who were returning to the community, or whose struggles landed them in jail. Their discussion topics have focused on healthy relationships, self-worth, and establishing boundaries. In addition, many of the women had experienced trauma in their lives and felt more comfortable discussing their experiences with other women. “I hope they get a better life, even if they change just one thing,” Walters said. “It’s important to take those steps.” Meeting with other women and hearing their stories has been helpful for Andrea LaGroney, who had never been to prison, but heard about the group through her involvement with 70x7, a West Michigan recovery and reentry program. “It has given me tools to implement and the ability to look at myself in a healthy way, and have healthy relationships and know I’m worthy of it,” she said. Continuing Support Others, including parole supervisors and correctional facility leaders, also attend CLEAR meetings to offer support to participants. Deputy Director Ken McKee began attending CLEAR meetings when he was warden at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility to show his continued support for those who had paroled from the facility to Kent County. “I am a big believer that you need to surround yourself with positive people to succeed yourself,” McKee said. “I told these prisoners when I met with them they needed to attend CLEAR meetings to surround themselves with positive people who could help them make positive improvements in their lives which included the Grand Rapids Police Department. I also told them that they would see me out in the community at these CLEAR meetings occasionally, supporting them as I was trying to be supportive of them during their incarceration.” He continues to attend CLEAR meetings when he has the opportunity. Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility Warden Tony Trierweiler has also continued to attend CLEAR meetings and credits Director Heidi Washington’s focus on Offender Success for putting an emphasis on the importance of programs like CLEAR and making sure those who return to the community are successful. “It’s very important as a warden to let these guys know the department supports them and wants them to succeed,” he said. “On a Tuesday I see these guys in prison, then on Thursday I’m sitting around a table eating lunch with them and encouraging them not to go back. My role is to lend my support and make sure if there’s anything I can do for them, I do it.” Kent County Parole Supervisor Janell Freeman said she thinks she often gets as much out of CLEAR meetings as the women who are participating. She regularly attends the group’s sessions in Grand Rapids and helped launch the women’s CLEAR group in Muskegon. “I’m able to offer support, guidance, advice and encouragement, and receive it as well,” Freeman said. “I highly encourage and recommend this partnership between law enforcement and the MDOC in counties statewide...The stories of CLEAR support, success and gratitude I’ve come across are seemingly endless.” Myers said he thinks it’s important for CLEAR participants to see him and other returning citizens like Hayes working together to help them. “I think one of the biggest components of it is guys like Ross who have walked those steps,” Myers said. “For everyone to see him and I working together ... it gives them a different perspective.” Hayes encouraged the group’s participants to stay focused, stay in close contact with their parole agents and pay it forward. “You have to set your mind to do better every day,” Hayes said.