San Antonio Food Bank fights hunger... feeds hope
San Antonio Food Bank fights hunger... feeds hope
Dominguez State Jail offenders giving back...getting hope
Every morning a select group of Dominguez State Jail offenders climbs into a Texas Department of Criminal Justice van and embarks on an incredible journey. These Windham School District (WSD) students leave behind the barbed wire confines of incarceration and travel to the San Antonio Food Bank (SAFB) where they find hope, feed hunger and give back to society.
Housed in an immense warehouse and office complex, the food bank is stocked with cliff-high shelves of food and continuous fork lift action. A steady stream of volunteers, workers, families, and other visitors bustle about the site, participating in a long list of programs to fight hunger.
One of these programs is the Windham Plant Processing/Warehouse Equipment Operation class, a solid partnership between the WSD, TDCJ, and the SAFB. Convicted felons enter this program to serve others, but they may also change their own lives. They are a part of the unique class which began approximately 12 years ago in partnership with SAFB. It’s an opportunity to teach WSD students knowledge and skills needed to succeed upon release. The program instills confidence, pride and hope in participants who are giving back to the community.
E. Cooper, SAFB director, explains the origins of the program: "We were trying to take our community service to the next level, we wanted to create a win-win." As a result, Cooper and Dominguez State Jail Windham Principal O. Kelly created the WSD class.
"Not only is it a journey for the WSD students, it’s one for us as well," Cooper says. "Windham students travel to our food bank five days a week for class and the opportunity to learn valuable skills. This class gives us (SAFB) the opportunity to see offenders as people, not as felons. We realize they have discovered through their participation that there are consequences to their choices. This class gives them the opportunity to make up for their ‘bad’ choices by allowing them to give back to several communities with their participation and work at the food bank."
SAFB is one of 202 food banks in the United States. They are an independent non-profit organization associated with Feeding America. There are only 20 Feeding America food banks in Texas.
"Our food bank services 16 counties in the San Antonio area by stocking food at approximately 535 non-profit organizations within the 16 counties," Cooper says. Our food banks feed 58,000 people each week."
Hard work fuels the program’s success, according to Windham Principal Kelly.
"Program success is about exerting effort and hard work," he says. Not only is our participation an opportunity for WSD students to give their time, it’s an opportunity for the food bank to help save money that can be used elsewhere. With our SAFB partnership, the amount of money saved is huge. The students work a four hour day, which saves the food bank $52 per day, per student, with the potential of saving the food bank $65,500 annually."
"The class gives students an opportunity to connect effort with success, and being affiliated with this program allows them to be immersed in that experience - there’s no shortcut to success," Kelly says.
Along with saving food bank costs, Cooper says this program has long-lasting benefits.
"The food bank focuses on three areas: food for today, food for tomorrow and food for a lifetime," according to Cooper.
"Food for today focuses on getting food out to our communities so no one goes hungry. Food for tomorrow is where we help educate our recipients of the assistance programs available for them like Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Food for a lifetime is where we help our community participants and our WSD students move from dependence to independence.
"We have partnered with WSD and TDCJ to help instill hope in their students! Our goal is to also educate the community about the opportunity to employ a felon. Our hope is that these students are recognized as someone’s son, brother, or dad -- and not just a felon," Cooper says.
"Statistics have shown that 80-90 percent of WSD students flourish when given the opportunity. We set the example here at the SAFB by hiring felons and giving the hope and opportunity of growth and advancement. Our own director of operations is a former member of the class and a former offender. He started as a warehouse worker and worked his way up to director, which proves there is hope!"
WSD students at the food bank are led through a variety of training exercises each day by J. Tesch, instructor for the past year and a half. She says she strives to make the class an environment where students want to learn, with the curriculum focusing on six areas: safety, forklift operation, material handling, inspection/philosophy, storage and staging and vocational/job opportunities. Classroom instruction goes hand-in-hand with warehouse on-the-job work experience. Upon completion of this class, students leave with a forklift license and a Windham certificate, along with actual warehouse training that will benefit them upon release. Students take away a feeling of "doing something greater," Tesch says.
"I have also learned that if you expect the best of these students, you will get it," she says.
The class is three to four months in length and can accommodate up to 20 students and two student mentors. The mentors are two offenders chosen from the previous class. For an offender to participate, he must be a WSD student at Dominquez State Jail. Teachers nominate students, who go through a screening process: they must be a J1 (State Jail code for trusty) status with a good disciplinary record. Once approved, the offender is transported to SAFB five days per week with the rest of his class to receive classroom instruction for one hour.
The class is also considered the offender’s job, and after instruction, the men go to work. The class is broken into two groups, with one group working in the receiving area, unloading and tending trucks. The other group pulls orders for shipping. The men are trained to use three different types of forklifts, including the sky jack forklift, the sit down forklift and the stand up fork lift.
By the end of the course, the offenders have learned a variety of job skills, including stocking inventory, taking inventory and the "racking" system of pallets. Also, from guest speakers, they learn important facts about interviewing for jobs, resume writing, personal finances and how to start a business. Offenders are also taught how to access community resources related to employment, housing, food and other necessities of life. Overall, participants are learning real-life work skills while discovering what they can personally accomplish.
"The most rewarding thing is when they pass their first test, when they didn’t think they could - or when they have never said a word in class, and at the end, they say, ‘Thank you!’" Tesch says.
This personal transformation is not lost on the offenders.
"We help feed 58,000 people a week," says K. Pool, an offender mentor for the current Power Management class. "That’s the important thing. It’s good to give something back. We’re giving something back to society."
At the end of the day, TDCJ’s offender-workers return to the confines of the Dominguez State Jail with a sense of accomplishment. They just helped better the lives of thousands of needy people - and they were able to interact with the free world once again. There is hope for their future after incarceration.
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