CAMDEN, NJ — What does 20 years of service to the Camden area equate to?
For the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley’s prisoner reintegration program, it’s meant changing the lives of more than 8,000 men hoping for positive futures.
Local and state elected officials, staff, and community members gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the regional organization’s Hope Hall, a facility dedicated to guiding incarcerated individuals back into society. Since 1999, the release program has supported adult men that are within 24 months of parole eligibility.
That same year saw the New Jersey prison population reach its peak — 31,493 men and women. Reentry services like those offered at Hope Hall have helped to reduce the number in prison since then “by nearly 39 percent,” said Daniel L. Lombardo, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley.
“This facility continues to be a tribute to and continuation of our founders’ commitment to providing reentry services to individuals impacted by incarceration,” Lombardo said.
The nation’s first “Hope Halls” opened in the late 19th century, an initiative of Maud Ballington Booth, co-founder of Volunteers of America. She sought to offer recuperative surroundings - the antithesis of the prison setting - to former prisoners that needed a chance to prepare for life back into the world.
Following in her mission, the Camden residential-style center of 175 beds offers 24-hour support and services such as job coaching, cognitive skills training, employment support, and substance abuse treatment and relapse prevention.
In front of the facility on Thursday, where photos from the initial ribbon cutting served as a backdrop, event attendees honored the anniversary through more than just positive statistics. At the heart of what defined Hope Hall, many speakers said, were the stories of redemption.
One such retelling came from Eric Echevarria, program director for addiction treatment and PROMISE (Program for Returning Offenders with Mental Illness Safely and Effectively).
But close to 18 years ago, he was Prisoner 416376 in East Jersey State Prison.
Echavarria got involved with drugs and weapons around his home City of Camden and ended up facing a 10-year sentence. At prison classification, he was told that he would be going to Hope Hall.
A halfway house would be a good place to get his life in order and get his CDL, Echevarria thought.
“That was my plan, but God had a bigger plan for me. Much bigger,” he said. “I couldn’t even dream of what I’m doing here today.”
Echevarria said it was at Hope Hall where he met some of the people that have stuck with him today, gesturing to the directors and co-workers in the crowd. He stopped at Bill Wilson, vice president of Behavioral Health and Reentry Services, a mentor “who believed in me the whole time.”
The time at the facility changed Echevarria’s mindset; he said that he always thought of himself as an intelligent person but without direction. While at Hope Hall, he would enroll in Camden County College and then graduate from Rowan University.
“I learned to use those skills, instead of being negative, in a positive way,” he said.
Another moment that he couldn’t have imagined came in 2010 when he was looking for a job. Echevarria by chance ran into Wilson at a pizza shop. A catching-up conversation led to his first interview, and a position at Hope Hall the following year.
“It was here that I got the cognitive-restructuring skills, the change in my attitude, the substance abuse treatment that I needed. All of that I got right here,” he said. “I’m a true believer of the change process. I could talk for days and I still couldn’t tell you how much I truly appreciate this program and the people in it and what they’ve done for my life.”
A fellow native of Camden, Assemblyman Bill Spearman (D-NJ 5) discussed how growing up, he witnessed people who had lost their way. Once out of the prison system, there wasn’t much hope for them, either.
He said that organizations like Volunteers of America are offering change, even referring to Lombardo as his “go-to guy” when crafting legislation on prison reform. The two met years earlier while Spearman was a member of the Camden City Council. That was also his introduction to Hope Hall.
“At that time, there were some people in the neighborhood saying, ‘Oh no, we don’t want this (facility) in our backyard,’ ” Spearman said, “which is really ironic, because many of the people who come here are from Camden and towns like Camden.”
“These people, this population, are us. They are people from our neighborhoods, from our communities, and it’s up to us to make a difference in their lives,” he said. “Because every person we can keep out of the prison system and put back onto the job rolls, is somebody who helps to build our community.”
Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Capelli thanked the members of the surrounding neighborhoods that embraced the facility.
Hope Hall, he said, was actively delivering services to prisoners long before ideas like reentry programs becoming a national movement and connections being made between mental illness and recidivism.
In 2006, when Cappelli assumed his current title, the county jail had a population of 2,010 people. It was built to hold only 700, leading to conditions worse than that of “third world nations,” he said.
“It became my No. 1 priority to address that problem,” he said. “And if not for the help of Dan (Lombardo) and everyone at VOA, we would not be where we are today with a population of below 800.”
He stressed the importance of addressing the issues that lead to people ending up in prison.
“(Lombardo) has recognized that for so many, many years, as has everyone here,” Cappelli said. He closed his remarks by presenting a plaque of appreciation to Volunteers of America leadership.