Long Branch — New Jersey State Librarian Mary Chute honored three New Jersey libraries for implementing outstanding creative programs. Long Branch Free Public Library was honored with this award for their nationally recognized Fresh Start Re-Entry Program.
Awards were presented to the winners during a breakfast at the New Jersey Library Association Annual Conference, held in Atlantic City on June 4. “As State Librarian, I am extremely pleased to recognize our award recipients” said Chute. “These programs are exceptional examples of libraries developing unique and innovative initiatives to improve programs and systems.”
The Fresh Start Re-Entry Program was created in 2010 to help ex-offenders who are making the effort to rejoin their communities and become productive, employed citizens. The program grew out of the library’s state-of-the-art, award-winning Virtual Career Center, after librarian noticed that many job seekers had previously been arrested or incarcerated.
The ability to expand the Back to Work Initiative and offer the Fresh-Start program was made possible by a $44,000 New Jersey State Library Literacy Grant. Badillo, now the library’s director, notes that the Fresh Start program takes the best of the “back-to-work services provided by the Career Center, and tailors it to ensure that the program is now confidential, personal and relevant to a large portion of the community that has previously been ignored or underserved.”
The program provides 11 one-on-one sessions of computer training, resume writing and job searching to the previously incarcerated. These job seekers begin by scheduling an appointment with the staff for an introductory meeting designed to provide an opportunity to build a trusting relationship.
Because these individuals view their prior arrest and background as very personal, it is important they feel comfortable and confident with those staff members who will be helping them get started. Starting with an informal conversation that includes details of their prior arrest history, their expectations and their current computer skills, a plan is outlined that is tailored to best meet the needs of the client.
After completing the program sessions, the clients will be encouraged to use the Library’s Career and Technology Center during open hours, where they can job search, complete online job applications and continue to learn computer skills to advance their education and job skills.
“Many of our previously incarcerated visitors were further disadvantaged by not having the advanced computer skills, or even any basic computer skills like using email or internet searching. This was especially pertinent of ex-offenders that had spent years in prison and were re-entering society with limited computer use. In many scenarios, technology had advanced by light years while time had stopped for many offenders living in a cell, behind ‘the wall,’” Badillo said.
More than 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year, and thousands more are released from local jails to return to their families and communities. Many have a difficult time transitioning from incarceration, primarily because of a lack of employment. This causes the cycle of poverty and crime to continue, and can have a negative social and economic effect on everyone.
Over 170 community members have participated in Fresh-Start, utilizing various components of the program. Dozens have returned to the library to share their individual success stories with the staff.
Whether it’s a new-found job or the confidence to return to school, Badillo said, “We’ve received positive feedback from community leaders, organizations, and most importantly, from this group of job seekers. It is extremely rewarding to help even one person secure a job and perhaps to provide inspiration to other’s in their situation.”
E.C., a two-year program participant praises the program, praising Tonya and the staff of the LBPL for “providing a safety net to those of us in the community, and using all of their resources to help individuals integrate back into our community.” E.C. said the program gave the skills and confidence to earn a GED and go on to community college.
“With sincere gratitude, I not only thank the LBPL and its staff, but Tonya personally for continuing to inspire me to find my way,” E.C. said. “Words can’t really express the positive impact the library staff has had on me by always showing interest and concern for me and many in my same situation. They have basically changed the course of my life.”
The library offers many other resources for job seekers, including practice tests for the GED, Civil Servant Exam, CDL license and more, assistance with online job searches and job applications, free public internet use, community resources and referrals, cultural materials and programs for personal growth and enjoyment, and trained staff who will assist visitors with their research needs. “Our program is not just about assisting ex-offenders to find jobs or learn computer and socialization skills, but is also about instilling hope in the hopeless by encouraging them to utilize the resources of the library as well as find the tools within themselves that will help them succeed,” Badillo said.
Badillo, Director of the Long Branch Free Public Library holds a MLIS degree from Rutgers University School of Communication and Information and is the co-author of Reaching Underserved Communities in Your Library.