When prison term is over, Stanley UMC steps up

By Annette Bender

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Harold Bryson used to pass the Silverdale Correctional Center as he drove to and from work. He always noticed the newly released former inmates walking along the road, so he took to picking them up and giving them rides to where ever they needed to go.

Bryson's kindness has developed into a ministry that is the first of its kind in Holston Conference: a “penal after care” program that helps “ex-offenders” with transportation and referrals for jobs and other assistance. The ministry has been in the making since 1997, when leaders of Bryson's church, Stanley United Methodist Church, had a vision and pursued it until it came to be.

Church and community leaders gathered at Stanley to dedicate the W.S. Hight Community Outreach Penal After Care Empower ment center on Feb. 29.

In a small house on the church's property, exinmates have a clean, newly furnished and renovated place where they can make telephone calls to locate family members, child care or housing.

The ministry concentrates on helping parents, Bryson said, “because we feel society is down on families. So we're trying to build a strong – what we call –‘kinship family bond.'”

Since the W.S. Hight facility opened in August 2003, 72 individuals have been assisted. All but 11 were women and all but one had children. Bryson's statistics show that most clients received help with counseling, getting their records expunged, creating resumes and filling out job applications.

Conference leaders are excited about Stanley's program because they want to expand Holston's involvement in prison ministries. Although a few Holston churches minister to local prisoners and at least two prison chaplains are conference members, no other known “after care” ministries exist in Holston. “We need to recognize that prison ministry is not just for people in the prisons, but we have to continue to minister to those people,” said Anne Travis, director of connectional ministries. “Stanley is unique and a model for the conference.”

“When prisoners are released, they lose their support and their support groups. It just ends. It's almost like we're letting them down,” said the Rev. Paul Griffith, chaplain at Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Tazewell District. “I'm glad that other Holston churches are taking that step of faith and providing something that's been much needed for many years.”

The ministry was many years in coming, however. Stanley leaders conceived the idea when they began to consider how to use a house on the property that had been transformed into a little-used youth center followed by a library.

“We tried everything,” said Izetta Thurmond, whose father is the house's namesake. The Rev. W.S. Hight was a pastor in the East Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. “We even thought about tearing the house down.” Then Stanley's pastor at the time, the Rev. James Jackson, suggested helping Bryson help the Silverdale inmates.

The idea took off, a board was created, and church leaders started filling out grant applications. For seven years, the congregation with 85 in average worship attendance shopped for money to establish the new ministry.

Finally, in 2003, the W.S. Hight Agency received a $25,000 “faith-based grant” through the Institute of Youth Development in Washington, D.C. Combined with donations from other groups and individuals – including two separate $10,000 grants from Chattanooga District – Stanley was ready to launch its ministry. Individuals from First-Centenary UMC donated renovation labor valued at $18,000, according to the Rev. Donald Swift, Stanley pastor. Others donated furniture, and church members William Hight and Henry Cothern “worked on the house everyday for two years,” Bryson said.

Today, Bryson acts as a volunteer director, but the hope is that additional funds will be secured to hire employees. Bryson works for W.S. Hight about 2 1/2 days a week in addition to his job as a support coordinator for the state's Department of Mental Retardation. Most of W.S. Hight's clients are referred through Signal Center's Families First program, Bryson said, but some come to the agency through word of mouth.

“It's been interesting, to see the changes in people,” said Thurmond. “They feel like somebody cares. They don't have to feel inferior or looked down on ... This is above our expectations. We didn't realize the impact it would have.”

To give to the W.S. Hight Agency, make a check to your local church and write “Advance Special #362” on the memo line.


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