Octavia Travis was about out of options.

Just released after serving a year at the women's prison in Fluvanna County, Va., for grand larceny, Travis had no contacts and no prospects after 27 years of using drugs and living on the streets of Detroit and Arlington.

Then a halfway house director told her about Virginia CARES, a private, nonprofit organization that helps former inmates and addicts find jobs, homes and self-respect. "I had nothing," Travis, 51, said about her life before Virginia Community Action Re-Entry System bought her clothes and helped her find an apartment and a job as a cashier at a Target store.

"The program helped me build a complete, new life," Travis said.

But with the wave of budget cuts imposed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) after an unprecedented revenue shortfall, the program is in jeopardy. The approximately $1 million in grants that the program receives annually from the state -- its entire operating budget -- is drying up.

As of Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services stopped paying for the 25-year-old program that has helped more than 50,000 former inmates.

Without adequate funding for the program, administrators say many of the 44 offices throughout the state will close and much of the program's staff will be laid off. Instead of full financial support, the state says it will provide a percentage of the funding; the program will have to raise the rest itself.

The program's predicament underscores the impact being felt by social programs across the state as Warner's budget cuts begin to take effect. It also highlights another consequence of the reductions: The program's therapists and social workers must somehow become master fundraisers or risk losing their jobs and community presence.

"Fundraising is indeed difficult work," acknowledged Carol-Lee Raimo, criminal justice analyst for the Department of Criminal Justice Services. But "Virginia CARES has been a private nonprofit and has been living on state dollars," she added.

Under the new plan, if the program can raise 25 percent of its budget, the state will provide the remaining 75 percent -- but only if CARES raises its share first. By fiscal 2004, CARES must raise 50 percent of its budget to get the other half; by 2006, state funding would be reduced to 25 percent.

"The strategy is to give them some help and a little time," said Daniel E. Catley, a correctional services chief at the Criminal Justice Services Department.

For 25 years, CARES has been working to integrate ex-prisoners into the outside world by providing skills and job training, group therapy and immediate medical and financial support. It helps prisoners gain a hold on their lives, often reconnecting them with their families, assisting them in finding homes or jobs, or supporting them in kicking drug habits. As part of a larger program called the Pre- and Post-Incarceration Services network, CARES establishes a connection in prisons across the state, where counselors and volunteers teach inmates how to prepare re{acute}sume{acute}s, fill out job applications and deal with interviews.

"The bulk of our transitional services go through Virginia CARES," Catley said. "We consider it part of the system, a social service to ex-offenders."

Cynthia Martin, executive director of CARES, said the program is used to living from grant to grant but that this will be a new experience. "Ex-offenders become a low priority in the system," she said, "even though if you can save them now, the state will save money in the long run."

When prisoners are released, Martin said, they often have no money and no home. When they look for jobs, they are frequently turned away because of their criminal records. Often, they turn to crime in a desperate act to survive, she said.

"Our competition is the streets," Martin said.

With others, Martin decided to develop a program in which prisoners could study to obtain a GED and learn a trade. They started working with prisoners at Botetourt Correctional Unit near Roanoke.

"We developed our own material and just revolved around that," Martin said, recalling that the program began with about a dozen clients a month.

The first part of their curriculum consisted of training inmates to adjust to life outside prison. The second part involved finding jobs -- the heart of the staff's effort.

Martin said that tying employers into Virginia CARES became less difficult once employers learned of the program's purpose. "We try to educate employers as to what the problems are and ask them to interview ex-inmates," she said. "Once I start talking to them about [CARES], that opens doors."

Every CARES office shapes its services according to the needs of the inmates. In the Alexandria office, James "Beaver" Green serves as community services specialist and tries to be a buffer between ex-offenders and a return trip to a prison cell.

"Parole officers call me often and say, 'Grab 'em before I do,' " Green said.

"Beaver has never turned me down for help," said Annie Lou Doster, a state probation officer. "He just comes through. He has been responsible for keeping many people out of prison."

In the 10 years that Doster has been an officer in Alexandria, she has come to rely on the Virginia CARES program as a point of referral for her parolees. "I'm the intake person here," she said. "I see people as soon as they come out of jail, institutions and courts, providing addresses that I already know will fall through. I feel our office would be adversely affected if Virginia CARES were to shut down."

Nelson Smith, director of the Alexandria Office of Community Services, said the CARES office in Alexandria sees at least 250 ex-offenders a year. Only about 10 percent of those return to prison.

Travis said she would be back on the street without CARES. She is working, off drugs and living on a budget while attending Northern Virginia Community College. Carrying an A average, Travis is studying to become a substance abuse counselor so that she can reach young people suffering with drug addictions.

"Virginia CARES gave me my life back," Travis said. "It gave me hope."

At a Virginia CARES awards program, Octavia Travis describes housing and job assistance she received after completing a one-year jail term for larceny.Betty Nichols, a client of Virginia CARES, receives an award for progressing through the program's services.