THRIVE: Restoring Life After Lockup

BY Luisa Muñoz

Aug 3 2023

In the spring of 2023, we announced the first set of Community Action Grants awards to seventeen local coalitions and grassroots organizations under our new approach to community impact as it seeks to build more equitable communities and advance economic opportunity. In the changemakers series, we will tell the stories of these organizations and their impact in the neighborhoods they serve.

Restorative Reentry

What is it like to rejoin the community after being released from prison? In Massachusetts, more than 61,800 people face this new reality each year as they complete their sentences and re-enter society. Sing Thanousith and Carlos Rodriguez are two Lowell residents whose stories underscore the transformative potential of compassion and holistic support for individuals re-entering the community and illuminate the critical role organizations like THRIVE play to foster healing, empowerment, and reintegration of those affected by incarceration.

What is it like to rejoin the community after being released from prison? In Massachusetts, more than 61,800 people face this new reality each year as they complete their sentences and re-enter society. Sing Thanousith and Carlos Rodriguez are two Lowell residents whose stories underscore the transformative potential of compassion and holistic support for individuals re-entering the community and illuminate the critical role organizations like THRIVE play to foster healing, empowerment, and reintegration of those affected by incarceration.

Individuals return home after prison face many challenges. Successful re-entry depends on factors such as ability to gain stable employment, housing, access to healthcare, and mental health support. Sing’s journey began with a room at a local shelter, the Lowell Transitional Living Center, where he was also able to begin working. An old friend from Norfolk-MCI introduced him to THRIVE and their programs.

In 2019, Sing began working at THRIVE, a Lowell-based organization that works to empower communities to welcome and support formerly incarcerated neighbors as they transition back to society. THRIVE’s core focus community is supporting adults over age 25 with an approach to community healing that is based on three key interconnected initiatives: restorative reentry, community building, and constituent leadership development among those most impacted by incarceration.

After an interview with Kim Yeasir, Co-Founder and Empowerment Chief & Officer at THRIVE Communities, Sing was accepted as a core member in one of THRIVE’s – Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). Each core member is paired with three community volunteers who provide mentoring and relationship-building. The Circle meets on a weekly basis for a year to support their adjustment to a new life. In these conversations, no topic is too mundane or insignificant. They talk about everything from family dynamics to everyday practical matters such as advice on purchasing a car. Key to the COSA success is how the members share their knowledge and experiences to guide one another toward good and informed decisions.

In 2022, THRIVE and the Massachusetts Community Justice Support Center (formerly OCC) launched the Greater Lowell Reentry Roundtable, a monthly meeting of service providers and community stakeholders throughout Lowell to advance racial equity and collaboration in reentry. The Roundtable has planned two collaborative projects to address gaps in reentry services: a welcome kit for newly released individuals and a common intake process.

Removing Lifelong Barriers

According to The Sentencing Project, the number of Americans with a criminal record has risen sharply over the past three decades. Around 100 million Americans —or as many as one in three Americans— have a criminal record.  A criminal record of any kind can be a barrier to economic security and mobility, presenting obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, family reunification, building good credit, and more.

"STARTING MY OWN BUSINESS WOULD MEAN NOBODY COULD TURN ME AWAY."
SING THANOUSITH

For Sing, it was difficult to find a job after his release. Cooking was one of his skills, and during his time at MCI-Norfolk, he improved on his Kamakazi sauce with chicken wings. Sing’s sauce was a hit with the men behind the wall. He decided to try to build on those skills and start a food truck business. “Starting my own business would mean nobody could turn me away,” Sing said. THRIVE connected him to Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) Lowell, a nonprofit organization that helps entrepreneurs start and grow a business through intensive business training, mentorship, and an extended professional support network. EforAll granted Sing with $1,500 to launch his business.

Sing’s business, Hop Sing in Town, started in a church kitchen. Then COVID-19 hit, shutting down the church kitchen and leaving Sing with no place to run his business. After completing a year with his CoSA team, THRIVE leadership invited Sing to volunteer in the Circles of Support. Shortly after that, THRIVE offered him a part-time position and today Sing serves as the Director of Community Building, a fellow leader in supporting others who have walked the same path.

In the future, Sing would like to continue his business, Hop Sing in Town, in partnership with THRIVE. He would like to open a restaurant that serves as a culinary school for returning citizens and as a steppingstone to getting them back into the workforce. “I want to create a place for them to stay and work, teach them to be independent and self-sufficient. I would like to call it a school for job readiness. Eight hours is a lot of change for people who do 20 years in jail,” said Sing.

This project would be well-suited for reintegrated citizens as it provides a platform to relearn essential skills, they may have stopped practicing while incarcerated. For example, many returning citizens don’t know how to pay their bills or manage their work schedules. “Formerly incarcerated individuals are used to a consistent prison routine when they are told when to eat, when to sleep, when they can go outside, and when to work. Often people returning from incarceration do not have experience managing what many people in the community take for granted related to personal responsibilities and a professional routine. They must relearn, among many other things, how to establish their own routine as a free person”, said Yeasir.

"THEY SEE US!"
KIM YEASIR

Like many community-based organizations, THRIVE’s main struggle is around securing sustainable funding for their operations and funding for new initiatives. For example, they would need additional resources to get programs like the Hop Sing in Town restaurant off the ground. As Sing pointed out, “with more support we can get more work done”.

“We are transitioning from being a grassroots startup into an established community organization. With that comes a big funding shift, so we’ve been grateful for this opportunity with United Way,” said Yeasir. The response from the community has been uplifting. Their organizational partners have shown unwavering support as well as their incredible members who continue to stand by their side, fueling their journey.

Winning the United Way Community Action Grant served as a powerful testament, showcasing that their efforts and profound impact do not go unnoticed. “They see us!” exclaimed Kim. “Funding opportunities where community members choose you are the ones that are the most affirming. It feels good to be chosen back by the community. It’s like the hug is mutual and shared.”

No one is disposable.

THRIVE cultivates lasting community relationships. “The relationships come from the individuals we engage, the way they continue to show up in the community for the community, seeking support and offering support, and sometimes just being present for each other,” said Yeasir. “It is one of THRIVE’s greatest accomplishments.” Kim’s words echo Sing’s testimony of what THRIVE means to him. “We are a family. We focus on building long-term relationships with the community members. That is why I am still in contact with my circle of support because they are like family to me. We have built strong relationships and we continue to support each other, even though we live in different places now,” said Sing.

Sing, true to his title as the Director of Community Building, embodies his role with dedication. His passion lies in helping returning citizens get back on their feet as in the case of Carlos Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican from Guayama who arrived in the US back in 1997. Carlos was in prison for 10-and-a-half years. His release happened during COVID in October of 2020, adding to the culture shock after being behind walls for a decade. Two weeks after his release, he met Sing at the shelter where he worked at the time. Sing recruited him to THRIVE, and his support has played a pivotal role in guiding Carlos.

"IT’S BEEN A JOURNEY; THRIVE PUSHES ME THROUGH UPS AND DOWNS TO MOVE FORWARD IN LIFE AND NOT GET STUCK. IT IS GOOD TO BE AROUND PEOPLE WHO HAVE WALKED DOWN THE SAME PATH I HAVE."
CARLOS RODRIGUEZ

Carlos was facing the same barriers that many previously incarcerated individuals must overcome. “I couldn’t get an ID because I didn’t have an address, I couldn’t get my Social Security card. THRIVE helped me to find detox treatment, get my essential documents, create my resume, and placed me in a job at a local restaurant.” Rodriguez said. “It’s been a journey; THRIVE pushes me through ups and downs to move forward in life and not get stuck. It is good to be around people who have walked down the same path I have.”

Carlos has been a CoSA member for a year, he comes most Mondays to meet with his CoSA team. Hand in hand with THRIVE, Carlos has developed a lot of patience, learned how to better communicate, express feelings, and set small goals. He is still adjusting to the outside life and thinking about how he can make today better than it was yesterday. “I just live one day at a time, I don’t think about the future a lot, but I do think about the present and keeping my life together,” said Rodriguez. This philosophy is shared by his partner, Tiffani, “I don’t blame him because we have been through so much and it’s hard to think about that future. We are all a work in progress, and we just continue to work on it every day,” she added.

The power of family in the reentry process

Carlos and Tiffani have been together for twenty years, on and off, and have three boys ages 19, 18 and 13. Their story embodies the two sides of the coin in the journey of incarceration. On one side, Carlos found himself behind cold, steel bars burdened with the weight of his mistakes and yearning for a second chance to rebuild his life. His days were marked by reflection and self-reckoning, as he confronted the consequences of his actions head-on.

On the other side of the coin, Tiffani stood steadfast on the outside, facing the tumultuous realities of waiting and uncertainty, longing for Carlos’ presence and the life they once shared.

She has been the unwavering pillar of strength for Carlos for 10 years. Their connection, resilient yet strained, transcended walls and time, serving as a testament to the unwavering power of love. “It was five days before I gave birth to our third child when he got arrested. The whole 10 1/2 years, I was a single mom in a house where he had been the main breadwinner. It has not been easy. We made it this far because we had support and love,” Tiffani said. The two sides of the coin intertwine, shedding light on the profound impact incarceration has had on the lives of both the incarcerated and their loved ones.

"THRIVE HAS WALKED WITH ME AND SHOWED ME HOW YOU SHOULDN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER, JUST BECAUSE SOMEBODY MESSED UP IN THE PAST DOESN’T MEAN THAT STILL THE SAME PERSON TODAY AND THAT’S WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THRIVE."
TIFFANI RODRIGUEZ

Together, Carlos and Tiffani demonstrate the profound duality of the journey of incarceration, but it is crucial to acknowledge the significant role played by THRIVE in Tiffani’s resilience. THRIVE became Tiffani’s rock amidst the waves of uncertainty. Kim, her THRIVE mentor, was a “peacekeeper of patience” who helped Tiffani face her challenges with fortitude and hope and supported her every step of the way. THRIVE has been a constant source of advice and guidance for her over the years. “We have talked through so much together, THRIVE has walked with me and showed me how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, just because somebody messed up in the past doesn’t mean that still the same person today and that’s what I love about THRIVE,” said Tiffani.

Carlos, Tiffani, and THRIVE weave together a story that illustrates the profound impact of both personal fortitude and the power of community. “Even though you may feel discouraged, do not give up on your journey. Hardships can lead to great things. Keep looking for the silver lining so keep your head up and keep moving forward. You’ll be amazed at the support systems available to help you, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are not alone in this,” said Tiffani.

Community healing and volunteers

Understanding that employment and housing are key to successful reentry, one more factor that can tip the odds is having a mentor or advocate that guides them through education so they can advance in life. As Anthony Braga, a longtime lecturer at Harvard who is now a professor at Rutgers, states “show that you can make inroads and start getting them away from the pressures that lead them to falling back into their old ways.” The path to a stable life is difficult for anyone starting from scratch, so reentry programs and the volunteers involved in them are essential to ensure that individuals like Sing Thanousith and Carlos Rodriguez can become thriving community members empowered to give back to the community that showed up for them when they most needed it.

THRIVE volunteers mentor individuals with justice history. THRIVE has supported 32 Core Members, over 180 previously incarcerated community members, and dozens more supported through both clinical and social reentry check-in groups that THRIVE staff support. This approach has seen high-impact results: early outcomes as of 2021 include: 88% of Core Members securing all needed IDs, 94% gaining access to health care including mental health, 79% achieving stable income, and 88% securing stable housing within one year of reentry. THRIVE provides a structure framework for volunteers to support Core Members. This framework includes clear expectations, practical guidance, and beneficial exercises. As a result, volunteers and Core Members form strong connections that can develop into cherished friendships.

Rob Steinberg, an assistant general counsel at UKG-Ultimate Kronos Group, has always been dedicated to community engagement. He has actively participated in various non-profit organizations, including his synagogue and church. However, Rob recognized a significant need for support among incarcerated individuals who often find themselves disconnected from society. He joined THRIVE a year ago as a CoSA volunteer community member to break free from his personal “bubble” residing in Cambridge, surrounded predominantly by white and Jewish friends, and make a meaningful impact on formerly incarcerated individuals.

“I don’t have a lot of practical information, if someone ask me how you buy an iPhone or how to deal with health insurance, I’m not very good at that but what I really enjoy and is my passion is to connect as fellow human beings,” said Steinberg “This is a unique opportunity to form a connection with people that have had very different and challenging experiences and to grow yourself. This is really about forming a partnership with formerly incarcerated people and creating new community”.

"THIS IS REALLY ABOUT FORMING A PARTNERSHIP WITH FORMERLY INCARCERATED PEOPLE AND CREATING NEW COMMUNITY."
ROB STEINBERG

Rob believes that connecting with formerly incarcerated individuals is beneficial for both volunteers and the rest of society. Volunteers can learn from insightful and talented individuals, and the rest of society can better understand a world that is often hidden from view. He began working with his core member shortly after being released, only five weeks into his freedom. He was impressed by his eloquence, intelligence, dedication, and determination to make progress not only for himself but also alongside others. Despite initially thinking he was meant to help him on the outside, Rob soon realized that he was also benefiting from the mentorship. “I have grown in the past year. I would say my core member- is guiding me to gain a broader perspective and better understanding of the world. I think I am more like a sounding board than a guide. I listen, ask questions, and offer support. I don’t see myself as providing guidance but rather providing support and understanding,” said Steinberg. Rob is proud that that his core member has achieved significant positive changes, largely attributed to the support he received from THRIVE. “There’s a lot more stability for him. They assisted him in finding job opportunities and securing housing. THRIVE helped him put his life together”.

THRIVE remains steadfast in its extraordinary mission to empower communities in embracing and providing support for their formerly incarcerated neighbors during their reintegration into society. The profound stories of Sing and Carlos highlight the immense challenges faced by a significant number of the 62,000 reentry citizens in Massachusetts. These narratives serve as a powerful reminder of communities’ pivotal role in breaking down barriers and offering vital support to individuals seeking a fresh start.

Together, we can create a compassionate and inclusive environment, helping our fellow citizens THRIVE in their transformation journey.

For more information about Thrive please contact volunteer@thrivema.org.