Gemeinschaft Home to join Urban Institute and Microsoft Effort to Use Data and Technology in Community-Based Project
Gemeinschaft Home is one of only 30 local organizations across the country selected to participate in the 2022 Catalyst Grant Program to use data and technology to advance racial equity in the criminal legal system in prevention, policing, and prosecution.
The program, spearheaded by the Urban Institute and the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative, seeks to build the capacity of community organizations to use technology to analyze, visualize, and share data to support community organizing, advocacy, and service provision. Each grantee will receive funds to cover project implementation; assistance on data, policy, and community engagement from the Urban Institute; access to Microsoft technology and related support; and peer learning opportunities.
Gemeinschaft Home is using the funds to work with Frederick Teye, Amanda Teye, Ph.D., and Jennifer Jacovitch, Ph.D., of the Applied Research and Evaluation Technologies (ARET) Group, a Harrisonburg-based software development collaborative, to create a customized, case management platform that will enable Gemeinschaft Home staff to securely collect, analyze, and report information about participants and program performance with community stakeholders. The ARET Group will also develop extensive user documentation and instructions and train all staff members in using the new software system.
The system (named “RESTART”) will provide a mechanism to systematically store and analyze data that can be used to track information—anonymously— about program participants and their experiences, for the purpose of improving program design and implementation, as well as participant outcomes, both at the organization and local policy levels. More importantly, the new platform will enable staff to work more efficiently in identifying participant needs and connecting them with appropriate service providers.
Read more about the program and the local projects on the Catalyst Grant Program website: https://www.urban.org/projects/catalyst-grant-program/2022-catalyst-cohort
Virginia Department of Corrections Early Release Program Leads to Increase in Male Residential Population
In July and August, the Virginia Department of Corrections began releasing incarcerated individuals in response to new legislation aimed at shortening sentence terms, and Gemeinschaft Home has experienced a dramatic increase in enrollment during this period.
The increase follows what had been an overall decrease in enrollment at Gemeinschaft Home, since 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, when the VADOC temporarily froze (or greatly reduced the number of) referrals to all CRP programs.
However, also in 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill granting the early release of certain (nonviolent) individuals, under a new earned credit program.
The new law would enable thousands of inmates to reduce their overall sentence by up to a third, for good behavior and participation in counseling and educational programs.
Roughly 1,400 inmates qualified for immediate release, but official enactment of the law was delayed until 2022.
In recent years, Gemeinschaft Home has provided 28 bed spaces for men participating in the CRP program, with 10 additional beds available for male participants referred through other community partners such as the Rockingham County Court Services Unit.
Yet, the facilities can accommodate a larger number of individuals, based on the size of the men’s home, its layout, and number of bedroom and bathroom facilities.
Therefore, Gemeinschaft Home has agreed to offer 12 more bed spaces for VADOC-referred participants, at least through the fall months and increased the number of beds paces (now at 49) in the men’s home to continue accommodating individuals through community-based referrals.
It is unclear how long the increased demand for enrollment will continue, but with 14,000 individuals currently eligible for a reduced sentence, the number of those exiting incarceration will likely be higher for months or even years to come. However, Gemeinschaft Home remains committed to providing support services to as many individuals re-entering the community as possible.
Alpha Phi Omega is a service-oriented college Greek organization and the most representative undergraduate, intercollegiate, co-ed non-profit organization in the United States.
Aside from a host of regular weekly projects serving local nonprofits (SPCA, Habitat for Humanity, Mercy House, and Bridgewater Retirement Community) the Chi Gamma Chapter of APO at James Madison University chooses a specific local nonprofit as beneficiary of their philanthropic efforts.
Under the leadership of its Fall 2021 Philanthropy Chair Samantha Posluszny, APO chose Gemeinschaft Home.
Board member and JMU professor Elisabeth Gumnior helped launch the semester-long collection drive for Gemeinschaft Home with a presentation detailing the mission, work, and needs of the organization.
At the end of the semester, Samantha delivered multiple large boxes of hygiene items for both the men’s and women’s residences and a check for over $800. APO members collected both material and dollar donations through a variety of fun and informative events on campus.
JMU students are often passionate and generous supporters of Gemeinschaft Home. Whether as interns, in the context of Community-Based Learning experiences, or as fundraisers and donors. And Greek life organizations such as APO’s Chi Gamma chapter are leading the way in preparing the next generation of philanthropists.
Thank you, APO for your tremendous generosity!
Resident Travis Trout has spent over two decades of his life in incarceration, yet his discovery of art while in prison has given him a lifeline of hope for the future.
Travis Trout, 42, arrived at Gemeinschaft Home in late August and has spent much of his first month in the program experiencing an uncomfortable yet familiar reality—adjusting to life after prison. The leap from day-to-day existence in prison to the chaotic world outside is far more difficult than many people understand.
For Trout, someone who has spent about half of his forty-two years behind bars, the process has been a life-long revolving door, with each turn as de-stabilizing as the one before it.
Trout’s mother passed away when he was only 13 years old, which had a shattering impact on his development as a young adult. He went to live with his grandparents on Smith Mountain Lake, in southwestern Virginia, where he grew up, but was soon arrested at the age of 14 on a burglary charge.
He had broken into a vacated house—damaging a window in the process—an action that precipitated continual interactions with the criminal justice system. At age 17, he was incarcerated for two years in a juvenile facility; so, by early adulthood, Trout already had more than an acquaintance with life as an inmate.
He has no violent criminal history, but economic pressure combined with a lack of guidance, led to Trout’s early association with drugs and other low-level crimes, usually involving short sentence terms, followed by community supervision (probation).
Between prison stays, he has always tried to live a “normal” life, forming relationships, having children, and trying to get by like everyone else, but he faced significant struggle doing so.
He violated the conditions of his probation—such as failing a drug screen—on several occasions which nearly by default landed him back in prison. In fact, over a decade of the time Trout has served was the result of a technical violation of his probation, rather than a new conviction.
However, each time he has gone to prison, the de-stabilizing force on his life outside has become more pronounced—the effects of which he especially feels now as a resident in the Gemeinschaft Home program. “The simplest things for most people are the biggest things for me,” Trout explains, pointing out that the highly-structured lifestyle of prison was easier to manage in certain ways. While he lacked basic independence and freedom of movement, he was also granted freedom from the inevitable responsibilities of the outside world—securing a home and stable employment, paying bills, and negotiating a range of daily obstacles that challenge us all.
During times of crisis, he has wished to be back in prison, where he argued that he could control his environment and manage expectations of his behavior with more ease. He recalls one such conversation with his probation officer, about 10 years ago, when his uncle had just passed, and he felt his life spinning out of control. He asked her bluntly, “Can you just put me back in jail so I can regroup?” as he planned to purposely fail a drug screen. He felt similarly adrift when he lost both grandparents as well. It was the same pattern he had grown accustomed to over the years.
As of August, Trout is again free from incarceration, and he now faces the same obstacles that have always confounded his ability to live beyond the institutional confines of prison. And, while 90 days at Gemeinschaft Home is a start, he has a chance to gain tools to stop the revolving door and to make the permanent transition out of prison.
One way he hopes to do so is through his artwork. Ironically, Trout discovered his artistic abilities many years ago, while incarcerated—at first just some basic pencil sketches, but later more developed drawings that he crafted in finer detail. What started as a way to combat boredom quickly became a passion, and with no (or very little) formal training, Trout found a creative outlet that continues to thrive. He also cultivated a proficiency in both designing and applying tattoo art, work that he has continued to pursue both inside and outside of prison.
Yet, as an evolving artist, he started to notice how incarceration had changed the way he saw the natural world, and he developed a quick and profound interest in digital photography. “After being locked up so much, when I spent time outside of prison, I started noticing leaves, looking at bugs...seeing things in nature that I never paid attention to,” he says, and he started taking pictures when he was free to roam around and explore. Over the years, he has built a significant collection of drawing and photos, some of which are featured here.
Drawing and photography supply a sense of balance in Trout’s life, offering a source of personal growth and a means of creative expression. He hopes to make art an important part of his journey forward to a life that is much too large for the confines of a prison cell.
Maintaining the grounds and facilities for only four years, Russell Smith brings a lifetime of work and care to Gemeinschaft Home.
A native of the Shenandoah Valley, 74-year-old Russell Smith has spent his entire life around the local area, raising a daughter and working in various (though related) industries.
When he joined the Gemeinschaft Home staff in 2018, he had been in retirement for a couple of years already and had found himself to be increasingly bored. Without the day-to-day bustle and activity of the workplace, Smith says he often struggled finding ways to occupy his time, joking,“If you don’t have a hobby, don’t retire.”
Smith did not initially seek out employment with Gemeinschaft Home, but after he learned about the need for a maintenance person (the previous person had vacated the position earlier in the year), he offered to lend a hand with some urgent projects around the men’s home, which eventually led to a permanent part-time position.
Today, Russell spends up to four days each week, usually during the morning hours, taking care of various tasks that range from lightbulb changes to more complex household repairs and equipment management.
Maintaining a facility that accommodates up to 50 residents and staff office spaces requires continual attention, and Smith works diligently to address needed repairs himself or to coordinate the relevant professionals—from electricians and plumbers to HVAC specialists and building contractors.
And, the scope of Smith’s work also widened last year, when Gemeinschaft Home opened the women’s residential facility on Old South High Street, as there are now two properties to maintain. Fortunately, he can lean on a wealth of work experience and a network of local colleagues, to inform his daily activities.
While just 16 years old, in the 1960s, Smith started honing his mechanical skills by working on cars at Wheatley Yetzer Ford and after as a truck mechanic for almost a decade with Harrisonburg Food & Produce. He later worked in several hardware businesses, which eventually landed him a job in sales with Dillon Industrial Supplies, where he remained for the next 29 years until his retirement. Smith explained that one fulfilling highlight of such work was helping farms and local manufacturing or poultry processing facilities to find the right parts at an affordable price for an infinite number of machinery and equipment types.
His knowledge base is wide, and his ability to troubleshoot a given repair problem is crucial for Gemeinschaft Home to run as efficiently as possible. Yet, in addition to his broad competence for most anything mechanical, it is Smith’s big heart for the mission and community of Gemeinschaft Home that is noteworthy and provides the basis for his continued involvement.
On any given day, Smith can be found interacting with residents, in many cases, teaching them how to complete various repairs or helping them out with frequent activities such as putting dozens of lunch bags together for each mid-day meal or assisting them in other chores around the house. He is also quick to help staff members, particularly the food services manager, and often spends a lot of time on the road running various errands on behalf of the organization.
“My job would be a lot more difficult, without Russell’s continuous help and support,” says Theresa Jarrett, who is in charge of the kitchen and food preparation. He often gets questions from friends and family members about his post-retirement employment at Gemeinschaft Home, an organization whose mission is unlike any context in which Smith has previously worked, but he has a sense of calling to be there.
He readily embraces the opportunity to interact with individuals who are struggling to find their way, who face obstacles such as drug addiction and mental health issues, and who are trying to repair vital relationships with family and loved ones. So, while he is focused on the repair and maintenance of the physical facilities, he is equally committed to the emotional well-being of the program participants as well.
Smith likes to joke that part of his job is “to come in and aggravate the residents,” which is his way of saying he enjoys engaging them in discussion: “The residents just need someone to talk to sometimes.” It’s not a requirement of the job to have any interaction with the Gemeinschaft Home program participants, but Smith argues it is an important reason for his continued commitment to Gemeinschaft Home, and everyone in our community is better for it.