Every year, an estimated 21,000 former Illinois prisoners will settle within the Chicago city limits. Formerly incarcerated individuals are often faced with unemployment, homelessness, lack of familial support, as well as health issues. With various obstacles in their way, an estimated two-thirds of individuals who were released from prison are rearrested within 3 years of their release. However, there are resources in Chicago that help individuals stay supported and out of prison.

St. Leonard’s Ministries was founded with the hope of providing comprehensive services to men and women who were formerly incarcerated. One of their facilities is St. Leonard’s House—an interim housing facility that provides comprehensive services for men that return to the community from Illinois prisons. The individuals that come to St. Leonard’s want a safe environment to get back on their feet, and the services that St. Leonard’s provides helps residents achieve their goal.

On the last Tuesday of every month, Chicago Cares holds a discussion group called Real Talk. Volunteer leader, Alex Fenske, creates a new topic each month, which is then discussed by Chicago Cares volunteers and the residents. The topics have ranged from health care reform to social networking, and last month, the residents had a discussion on Governor Quinn’s new budget plan that would close two prisons and two juvenile detention centers.

Alex has been a member of the Chicago Cares community for several years, and has led the Real Talk program since 2008. This discussion based program model is different than other adult education programs. For someone who has done several projects with Chicago Cares, Alex has a unique perspective on this volunteer opportunity and how it ties into volunteer work.

“Sometimes people ask me how this project is community service, because at a glance the service aspect may not be obvious. I explain to them that for men who have recently been released, they can’t go anywhere or do anything without being labeled as an ‘ex-con.’ After spending anywhere from a couple years to a few decades in prison with virtually no rights and privileges, I think the men at St. Leonard’s are appreciative just to have a regular conversation with people they don’t know who don’t treat them as ‘ex-cons’ and don’t have an agenda to push.”

The men that come to St. Leonard’s reside there by choice; they want to remain stable after being incarcerated, and the numerous services at St. Leonard’s help them achieve this goal. “The residents there are the few who have gone through Illinois’ “correctional system” – which is not correctional at all – and decided to correct themselves by their own accord. That decision and the commitment required to see it through take enormous strength and effort, and the opportunity to talk with these men who have seen and conquered such struggle is inspiring,” Alex said. “For the volunteers, it’s enlightening to hear opinions from people with life experiences they likely would not otherwise encounter; hearing those different perspectives keeps us all grounded.”

If you are interested in this opportunity, come and check out one of our upcoming Real Talk projects.