By Helen Bohorquez
Originally published in the Brooklyn News Service.
In a small ceremony on Tuesday, board members and beneficiaries celebrated structural improvements to the 6,000 square foot area that included a dining hall, reception area, offices and classrooms, thanks to a $275,000 grant from the Robin Hood Foundation.
“When a space looks dingy and unwelcoming it makes a statement despite everything we try to tell people,” said Joanne Page, President and CEO of the Fortune Society. “[But] when it is bright and beautiful, it says you matter…and it supports the hard change that people here are trying to do.”
The Queens location provides family, health and employment services, as well as education programs, substance abuse treatments and housing to more than 400 people a day. These reentry programs help persons with criminal records have a successful transition to their community after release.
“Even with their prison time, people can say, ‘this is me, I’m a new person and this is what I got and what I have to offer,” said Kwanda Baker, who has a conviction for fraud and who thanks to a two-week employment preparation program at Fortune Society, now works as customer service representative at Whole Foods.
This sense of belonging and acceptance has also pushed many Fortune Society clients to become staff members. According to its website, more than 70 percent of its professional staff are formerly incarcerated, homeless or have substance abuse history.
“I’m more than grateful because I grew up at Fortune” said Barry Campbell, who served a two-and-a-half-year sentence for robbery and its now the Special Assistant to CEO for the organization. “This was a place where I could let my guard down and be me, and learn new things and grow.”
Campbell also said that the makeover of the building, which included new carpet and flooring installations, as well as new workstations and furniture, also helps to reflect the organization’s mission.
“Many formerly incarcerated individuals, whenever they walk into a social services agency, they are not treated with much love and respect,” he said. “Here, we tend to look at the human side of an individual. It’s just treating people the way you would like to be treated, because even though they are formerly incarcerated, they deserve a second chance.”