They filed into the sanctuary to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Wearing green or black gowns and tasseled caps, they carried themselves with pride.
But the 91 men and women who walked the stage at The Potter’s House in Dallas on Sunday were not receiving typical diplomas.
They were there to celebrate completing the Texas Offender Re-entry Initiative, a 12-month rehabilitation for formerly incarcerated men and women. While not all of them attended, 115 people have completed the requirements for this year’s graduation.
“What we appreciate most is that you didn’t quit,” Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of The Potter’s House and founder of the offender re-entry program, told the group.
The program operates under the umbrella of the Metroplex Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit. It started in 2004 and accepted its first clients in 2005. More than 10,000 ex-offenders have been helped by the program.
“I’m concerned about the fact that we spend more to incarcerate than we do to rehabilitate,” Jakes said. He said he started the program, which grew out of the church’s prison ministry, to give back to the community.
He is not alone in recognizing the program’s potential.
Ronald Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services for the U.S. Department of Justice, and Eugene Schneeberg, director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the DOJ, attended the ceremony Sunday. They are discussing ways to use the program as a model for others across the country, Davis said.
The program, which offers employment, education, housing, family reunification and spiritual guidance, is in five cities: Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.
“When I heard about T.O.R.I., I felt like it was something I just had to reach out and come do,” graduate Stephanie Clewis said.
She works as a cook but said long term she would like to become a career coach.
“I’m so great with computers, why not take what I did to harm and [use it] to help now,” she said.
As Clewis and her classmates watched, TV’s Judge Greg Mathis delivered a keynote message of overcoming obstacles. Mathis overcame adversity and poor decisions made in his youth. He now has a nonprofit, Young Adults Asserting Themselves.