After four long years of work, the Liberty County Re-Entry Coalition celebrated with a ribbon cutting Thursday morning.
A large crowd of local dignitaries, businesses, law enforcement agencies, non-profits and current LCRC clients attended the event.
The LCRC will provide a one-stop shop for people who were recently released from prison. The center will help clients find jobs, get their driver’s license, look for temporary housing, mentor them in professional development and assist them in acclimating back into society and become productive citizens.
The concept came about roughly four years ago when Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes ran into a Walthourville resident while campaigning for re-election in 2012.
Sikes said this man walked up to him and asked what resources could the sheriff provide to help him, a convicted felon, find a job or get a license. Sikes said something about the man’s plight tugged at his heart and he knew something needed to be done.
"The Lord laid on my heart the desire to do something to help this man out…God always appropriates for what he orchestrates," Sikes said at Thursday’s ceremony.
Sikes spoke with state representative Al-Williams (D-Midway) about the concept. Williams agreed there was a need and they went to work, first by seeking the help of Daisy Jones.
"Our jails were running over and part of the reason for that was because of recidivism…they would go out and right back in," Williams said. "You can’t give a man who has done 10 years in the penitentiary $25 dollars and a bus ticket and think he isn’t on the way back to seeing you right then. When you walk out of jail you should no longer be treated like a prisoner. You should be treated with respect and be allowed to maintain your dignity. When prisoners come out they need hope."
Shortly after the group started talking about the possibility of creating a reentry program, Governor Nathan Deal implemented a statewide initiative, first by launching the program in six major cities as pilot locations.
The LCRC board kept hard at work developing the LCRC to model that of Governor Deal’s initiative. The board met often with the public, local businesses, community leaders, Faith-Based organizations and recently released inmates to determine their needs as well as the availability of resources and the concerns of the local residents.
As things moved forward the board worked on finding funding resources. They also partnered with the Kirk Healing Center for the Homeless to accommodate housing needs. The group worked closely with the Liberty County Board of Commissioners and worked out a plan to house the LCRC at a vacant building on Court Street.
In exchange for rent, the LCRC would cover the cost for roof repairs and the renovations necessary to make the building habitable.
"First thing we had to do was evict the rats," Williams joked.
The LCRC received $24,000 in grants to help them provide the services, City of Hinesville Mayor Allen Brown told the ceremony attendees. Fort Stewart Youth Challenge helped in cleaning the building and painting. Local businesses chipped in with tools and materials. VIP Office supplies donated file cabinets and chairs.
The rat-infested building was transformed and is now welcoming with brightly painted walls, computer stations, work stations, a conference room, mini-kitchen, restroom facilities, furnished foyer and furnished counseling room.
"We are incredibly excited and it has just been miraculous," said Jones, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who heads up the LCRC as its executive director and community coordinator. "There have been so many hands on deck…you know it’s just never one person…it is always multiple hands on deck."
Jones said she knew it was a great cause and had planned to see it to this final stage before concentrating her full-time efforts back to her federal job. She said her plans were to pass the baton once the LCRC was complete. But after years of devotion Jones said meeting the clients and the last nine months of final preparation made her reflect on her priorities.
"It took nine months for a new mindset to develop within me….I began to think differently and I had my own transformation as I thought about what would be my involvement," she said.
Williams noted they needed funding from the state and made steps in that area possible by introducing the concept of having the LCRC serve the entire Atlantic Judicial Circuit.
"When they started….there were no rural programs in the state," he said.
Representatives from the state’s reentry initiative have met with the LCRC board in the past and noted that the LCRC is a program the rest of the state should model
"In my soon to be 15 years in the legislature there has not been a project that I have been more proud of, that has touched me more, than this project," Williams said.