Book club for former inmates uses grant from GW to transform lives

Media Credit: Nicole Radivilov | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Eddie Crist, who spent many of his teenage years at youth detention facilities, now takes part in the Free Minds Book Club and sometimes contributes poems. The group received thousands of dollars from a GW capstone course.

Updated March 27, 2014

After serving 10 years in prison for robbery, Antonio was one of many inmates to emerge from the D.C. prison system with little hope of successfully reentering society.

When Free Minds Book Club reached out to him, he said his prison guards laughed at the idea that he would join the organization. Antonio now reads to his 11-year-old son, who hopes to become a doctor, every night.

“Antonio didn’t know how to read when we first met him. The correctional officers told us to not waste our time asking him to be a member of Free Minds and now he is a voracious reader,” said Tara Libert, co-founder of the nonprofit organization, who declined to give the participant’s last name. “Now he has a future.”

With the help of a $5,000 grant from a class of GW students, Free Minds Book Club now holds outreach sessions for 16- and 17-year-old inmates at the Central Detention Facility in Southeast D.C. three times a week. The group also supports adult inmates who have transferred to 47 federal prisons in 25 states.

The sessions can be powerful forces to prevent recidivism. With the help of the book club, Antonio wrote a two-page apology letter to the woman whose cell phone he stole as a 16-year-old, offering to replace it. Since it received the grant money last year, the Free Minds Book Club has seen the recidivism rate of its members drop to 24 percent.

The organization was one of 30 that submitted applications for grants totaling $10,000.

The capstone course for human services majors, taught by Peter Konwerski, who is also the dean of students and a vice provost, has distributed grants to local nonprofits for the last three years.

“While we always want to ensure the D.C. nonprofits are awarded funds that support their missions, the core goal of the class is to produce more well-informed nonprofit leaders,” Konwerski said, stressing that students learn “the value of philanthropy” as well as the logistics behind it.

This year, the class will focus on health and wellness programs in the D.C. area that serve disadvantaged populations.

Senior Tyler Daniels, who is leading the group of 20 students, said the service-learning course gives experience to students interested in philanthropy.

“The foundation is the real deal, and we are giving away real money,” Daniels said.

Konwerski said the class will apply for new funds from the Learning by Giving Foundation in the next few months.

DeVonna Petree, who founded the nonprofit Tyunin’s Breakthrough to help low-income single mothers find jobs, said the money helped the organization stabilize its finances, open a D.C. center and hire staff. The group’s “empowerment sessions” aim to raise self-esteem among women who suffer from illness, alcoholism or drug addictions.

“You have to believe in yourself first. Our program works from the inside out and shows [the mothers] that they deserve it,” Petree said.

Latoya, a single mother of four who joined the program, at first thought she could only get a job as a maid, but decided to train to be a police officer after a few sessions. Tyunin’s Breakthrough received a $5,000 grant and is now working to create an online course for single mothers and open a center in Arizona.

The current GW class has not received any grant applications yet this year, though organizations have until April 4 to make their submissions.

Members read poetry in groups, talk about youth violence and incarceration and participate in writing workshops. Other sessions help them apply to school, build resumes and learn job skills. Some are paid to work at the Free Minds Book Club office.

The organization picks books with characters that are relatable to the young men, who have grown up in poor neighborhoods and committed or helped commit violent crimes. Their book list includes “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America” by Nathan McCall and “The Freedom Writers Diary.”

“They see themselves as characters in these books, and then they see a new path,” Libert, the group’s co-founder, said.

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