Hartford Dismas House fundraising starts
By Ben Conarck
THE VALLEY NEWS | March 05,2013
Libby Marsh / The Valley News
A camera flashes over the crowd as Jay Davis of West Hartford, center, talks with friends during the open house held to promote Dismas House on Sunday.
WILDER — A packed house at the Wilder Center was brought to its feet Sunday evening as a former Vermont prison inmate delivered a rousing speech detailing the redemption he has found since being released three years ago.
“It’s a miracle that I’m here today,” said Patrick Higgins, the keynote speaker at the first public event for Hartford Dismas, a nonprofit organization that will provide housing and other support for men and women re-entering the community after serving time in prison. “It’s a miracle that I have any pride, morals, and I take that to heart.”
“Criminals who get locked up and spend an extended period of time ... the only thing they learn is to become better criminals. I can vouch for that. And with what Dismas offers, I’m living proof that people can change.”
The event Sunday marked the kick-off for the Hartford Dismas House’s fundraising campaign to raise $325,000 to convert 1673 Maple St. into a 10-person home. Dismas of Vermont has already raised about $605,000 in donations and grants, including sizable contributions from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the Vermont Department of Corrections, and even some funds facilitated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 2009, more commonly referred to as the “Stimulus.” Jan-Roberta Tarjan, executive director of the Dismas of Vermont, said the next round of fundraising will focus on private gifts. Once finished, the family-style home will house anywhere from eight to 11 furloughed inmates and two live-in volunteers.
Shawn Donovan, the project manager for the Hartford Dismas House, told the crowd Sunday he hopes to start the renovation project on the 1870 home in the spring and open the house by fall.
Tarjan said once somebody goes to prison, “they kind of get stamped as no longer employable, no longer trustworthy, on the other side of some fence forever.
“It costs us a lot of money in this society, and it costs us a lot of what makes the heart of a community, so we’re hoping that more and more of this will happen,” said Tarjan. She added that it costs $18,000 for the nonprofit to house a resident for a year, compared to the $58,000 it costs to house an inmate in a Vermont jail for a year.
In an emotional speech, Higgins, 34, recounted how he felt that he had burned all the bridges in his life when he first landed in Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland after “15 years of making very bad choices.”
But Higgins was spurred on by a love for his son and fiance, who he eventually won back after being accepted into the Rutland Dismas House. He credited the structure and support that the nonprofit provided him with helping him piece his family back together, which he crystallized with the example of simply being able to invite his fiance and son over for dinner.
“As a man, that’s the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “Consistently, I was bringing my family over for dinner. I’d take pride in a job interview, care about friends, and have goals and outlooks.”
After three months of “living the Dismas life,” Higgins was asked to be assistant night manager at the Rutland house, which he called “the proudest day in my life.”
“What a drastic step it was for me to go from not even raising my own children and burying my brain in any substance I could find to ignoring the guilt from not being a father ... to being responsible for a full house, to look out for them, to know that they were looking up to me,” said Higgins. “I’m six-foot-two and I swear I was 10 feet tall that day.”
A phrase repeated by many throughout the course of the event Sunday was the term “family-oriented.” At Dismas Houses, a base of volunteers provide a home-cooked meal every night, which they then sit down and eat around the kitchen table with the residents.
Tarjan emphasized that the program would help alleviate the “splintering effect” that is felt when former inmates are not reintegrated back into their communities.
“These people all belong to somebody’s family,” she said. “These people are loved by somebody. They’re somebody’s brother, mother, and when you fail to pull them back in again ... it hurts the whole community.”
The Dismas House was initially expected to open in January and first received approval from Hartford officials in June of 2011. A month after that initial decision, Revs. Lani and Kathy Janisse — co-pastors at nearby Praise Chapel — filed an appeal, which led to a decision by the Vermont Environmental Court last fall that upheld the Hartford Planning Commission and Zoning Board’s unanimous approvals of the project. Dismas of Vermont also has houses in Burlington, Winooski and Rutland.
Vermont state Sen. Dick McCormack was at Sunday’s event playing bluesy guitar and harmonica, but he made no speeches. Norwich resident Dan Hershenson received an honorary award for providing pro-bono legal services to Dismas of Vermont.
John Keramis, a Quechee resident in attendance Sunday night, said that when he read about Dismas of Vermont, the idea resonated with him because he “always felt that the prison population has been ignored.”
“For the sake of the long-term in society, we need to pay attention to rehabilitation and correction instead of warehousing, and this is a very good attempt to do that,” said Keramis.
He emphasized that the transition from prison to society was harder than many realize, especially given the lack of support in many communities for former inmates.
“People tell you in jail when to get up, when to eat, when to shower, and now you’re on your own and you have to make those decisions yourself,” he said. “It’s a big adjustment.”
Tarjan, a graduate of Dartmouth College, told the Wilder Center audience to remember that the Dismas House was “not a somber place.”
“Laughter is a close cousin to hope and it feeds the soul,” said Tarjan. “That’s why it’s important to know that this work is a joyful work, and it will be that in Hartford when we’re up and running.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.