NEWARK, NJ — A study designed to help formerly incarcerated men re-enter society in Essex County recently held its final graduation from an intervention program.

The Newark Community Collaborative Board, a group of researchers, service providers and people with histories of substance use and incarceration, has been working on the "Community Wise" intervention program for the past four years with funding from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health. 

The NCCB studied components of Community Wise to determine its impact on substance use. Preliminary findings suggest better outcomes arise when peer facilitators lead the full intervention program.

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Over the last four years, more than 600 men enrolled in the program which consisted of 15 two-hour group sessions delivered weekly. The sessions were designed to reduce substance use frequency, HIV/HCV risk behaviors and reoffending by increasing critical consciousness. 

With a deeper understanding of critical consciousness, participants can take action against the oppressive elements of their reality by advocating for community resources.

Project heads have applied for further funding to continue to test the program for another five years to determine whether Community Wise works.

"We believe it’s not fair to see people thrown to the sidelines because of stigma, because of lack of understanding, or because they made mistakes in their lives," said Liliane Windsor, University of Illinois associate professor of social work. "It’s never too late to begin again, it’s never too late to believe in each other."

Nancy Wolff, Rutgers University distinguished professor, discussed three factors which influence a program's effectiveness. The type of treatment is less important than how a facilitator delivers the treatment, Wolff says. If a facilitator is consistent, present and makes participants feel safe and trusted, the program will be more effective. Most importantly, however, is the participant's willingness to show up and be open toward the program.

"Once you say yes, there is a possibility for transformative change," Wolff said.

A Community Wise facilitator, Lisa Gaskins, celebrates 13 years substance free this year. She endured treatment in 2006 and remembers her own incarceration and struggles.

"I believe that the change of the individual can change the community," Gaskins said. "When we empower ourselves to make changes, then we can affect the changes of other people."

Wadu Moore, a participant from a previous group, also spoke during the graduation.

"A lot of times I was in the streets. When I was in the streets, I was doing bad, I was hurting a lot of people. This program helped me out to look at life in a different way."

Moore said now he volunteers most of his time to help others, working at shelters and lending people advice others gave him. Recent Community Wise graduate Corey Senor said it felt good to do something positive and different. 

"I like it when I have a choice and I do the right thing. You guys helped me do that. I look forward to doing it again, or seeing the next step for something better, bigger and greater."