Largo church hopes to help turn ex-inmates into entrepreneurs

June 27, 2012

By the fall, Prince George’s County inmates looking for a second chance might have a new avenue to spread their wings. A Largo-based church has created a nonprofit organization that aims to convert convicts into entrepreneurs after they are released from prison.

Teach ’em to Fish was created in early June by Gateway to Wholeness Church Ministries, a small, nondenominational Christian church with about 10 members. Organization founder the Rev. Clarence Crawford of Largo said he and other volunteer church members plan to work with inmates for a roughly 30-month period to develop skills, from preparing to leave the department of corrections to finding a job, and eventually owning and operating their own business.

Once inmates are released from prison, the organization plans to train them to save money, keep a job, build their skills and vision, and eventually own a business.

“Our goal is a simple one. The Lord has given us a charge to help the people that nobody else wants,” Crawford said.

Crawford, pastor of Gateway to Wholeness, which formed in 1999, said the nonprofit group is in talks with the county’s department of corrections to formalize a partnership and allow Teach ’em to Fish staff members to use correction facilities for the first part of their four-step program.

Stephan Simmons, the Department of Corrections’ division chief for program services, said he’s excited to partner with Teach ’em to Fish. He said that anytime he works with a community organization, it benefits the corrections department because of the number of vocational classes and programs they can offer to inmates. He added that Teach ’em to Fish likely will start out working with the corrections department’s existing barber class.

“Guys figure when they get locked up, that’s [the] end of their efforts,” Simmons said. “But the truth is, everybody gets out, and since everybody gets out they have to have an opportunity, and we want them to have something to give focus to and have a direction.”

The first step in the program will be an in-prison “boot camp” to build business skills and self-esteem. Participants will then move on to step two, which focuses on developing positive work habits, opening bank accounts and demonstrating a “real commitment to make a change,” Crawford said. In the third step, former inmates will put their acquired funds and skills together and begin creating a business. In the fourth and final step, they will run their newly formed business.

Crawford said the church has a program with the department of corrections in which mentors speak to county inmates on a regular basis about understanding who they are as individuals and recognizing that they will have options after incarceration. He said the same church members who are involved with that program will help lead the new business incubator, working with area experts in the field.

The program will start with a group of nine participants in the fall and hopefully grow in the future, Crawford said.

He said that for the first several years, the organization will have a somewhat narrow focus of career paths ex-offenders can seek that are easier to manage and have few overhead costs. Those include owning a barber shop, car-detailing service, landscaping company or commercial office cleaning business, or computer-related occupations, such as Web design.

Leittia Vaughn of Forest Heights, the nonprofit organization’s treasurer and a church member, said the church has been meeting regularly to develop a structure for those released from prison in terms of classes and training sessions, which will be run out of the Gateway to Wholeness Church on Mercantile Lane in Largo.

“We’re transforming lives and launching businesses,” she said. “There are lots of people out there who need to be served.”

Crawford is in talks with Anthony Nelson, dean of Bowie State University’s business school, to have graduate students intern as coaches and teachers.

“We’re always excited when individuals or organizations come to us and say, ‘We need your students, we have employment opportunities for your students and they have a chance to utilize their skills to make a difference,’ ” Nelson said.

Crawford said he is also looking for businesses that are open to taking in former prisoners for work and looking for potential sponsors who will donate to help fund the incubator.

He said that with the help of sponsorships, volunteer coaches and experts to teach necessary skills to create stable jobs, Teach ’em to Fish will make a difference in ex-offenders’ lives and their families.

“Nobody gets where they are without somebody’s help,” Crawford said. “If we can make a difference in just one person at a time, imagine how it changes lives.”

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