Compassion in Action's move to the former Wesley House campus at 2001 North 35th Street is symbolic for CIA founder-executive director Teela Mickles.
Her nonprofit serving men, women and children touched by the judicial and penal system will return community-based human services to a site that housed Nebraska's oldest social service agency.
The Wesley House Community Center was a United Methodist Church mission for decades. Most recently, Paul Bryant operated a youth leadership academy there. When it closed in 2010 the Methodists pulled support and the two-building campus, which includes a church, was acquired by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation.
The buildings sat unoccupied until Mickles and OEDC president Michael Maroney reached an agreement for CIA to move operations into the main structure this spring. She's subleased the church to a Native Assembly congregation pastored by Rev. James Bollinger. CIA and the church will offer a community food pantry.
She hopes to raise $300,000 through donations, grants and fundraisers to support operations the first year. Proceeds from a June 28 Performance for Peace event at the Kroc Center, 2825 Y Street, will go to CIA. The 6:30 p.m. event will feature live music performers, spoken word artists and dancers.
Mickles is also seeking donated materials and labor to address various building needs.
For Mickles. who's added extensive youth services to the CIA mission, moving from her home to a building with multiple office, meeting and classroom spaces, made sense. But relocating to this northeast Omaha site is also personal. She grew up in a home where the center now sits.
Maroney, the man entrusting Mickles with the place's legacy, has warm memories of Wesley House. He worked there on three separate occasions. The organization he runs today was birthed there, as were other black-run enterprises, including a bank and radio station.
"It had meant so much over the years, particularly back in the late '60s and early-mid '70s when it actually was doing things unprecedented in terms of creating those entities," says Maroney. "That's why we were careful to ensure we leased it to an organization that continues to add value to the community going forward."
Mickles appreciates that past and intends on being a positive force in a community reeling from gang violence, truancy, dropouts, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
"I think these things could be prevented if people were aware of the root causes and were willing to go after those root causes," she says.
It's why she's partnering with a gang prevention program. Raw Dawgs Youth Corps, whose focus is boys, and with two programs, ICARE Youth Services and IMAGES, whose focus is girls. Kainette Jones runs ICARE and Helen Wakefield runs IMAGES. The women laud Mickles for her commitment to empower people to change their lives.
The LITE (Ladies in Training Everyday) Mentoring Partnership for at-risk girls is a collaborative between CIA, ICARE, IMAGES and the city.
"Kainette works with girls who are in the judicial system, Helen works with girls in the public schools system and I work with girls locked up – in detention. The girls can come out of my program and go into the other programs," says Mickles.
It's akin to the human and social services once offered at Wesley.
"There's a lot of history here," Mickles notes. "Mike Maroney didn't want to give it to just anyone, he wanted to keep it in the community, he wanted to keep it doing what it's supposed to do with its history of serving families and reaching our little kids. And I have my own history with it because at age 10 my mother and father sold our home and two adjoining lots so the Wesley House could be built. There's a tree my dad put a tire in so I could swing.
"So I'm coming back home. It's amazing I've come full circle and am back where I started."
She's coming with an ambitious plan, too.
"This is a major opportunity for Compassion in Action to expand with all the organizations I partner with to keep our babies from going through that cycle. We're going to break a whole lot of cycles."
Mickles, a certified Assemblies of God minister and an addiction counselor, has worked with incarcerated folks for 30 years.
As part of her faith-based work she's developed a curriculum to help inmates prepare for life on the outside. She also trains individuals and organizations dealing with offenders.
For inmates to buy into a program, she says, "it's gotta be personal, it's gotta be on their terms." Her early work with women taught her that preparation before release is key.
“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”
Many of the same things hold true for male offenders.
Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever leave prison.
“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release. We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”
Family reconciliation can take time. The focus must first be on recovery.
Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she says.
For a time she operated CIA transitional homes where returning citizens stayed in preparation for "independent living.” That included making residents employable. Today, she refers ex-offenders to transitional living and employment programs.
Her work received a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide parent education to women in prison.
“We had some really good results."
In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.
She says, "A man has to feel some type of significance in order to continue his survival. These men are not dead. There's a lot of intelligence, creativity behind those walls. You'd be surprised how a light comes on. But the problem is they're not able to express that behind the walls."
She believes men need encouragement and guidance from other men inside and outside the yard. "A man I think needs to take him down the journey." Finding enough mentors is a challenge.
Mickles can relate to the personal struggles ex-offenders face. Years ago she escaped an abusive marriage by fleeing with her five then-small children. They were homeless for a time.
Nebraska Department of Corrections Deputy Director of Programs and Community Services Larry Wayne says Teela’s “integrity” earns her credibility inside the walls and on the street, because she’s earned the trust of people who’ve been let down before. “She’s walked a mile in their shoes, not in prison necessarily, but she’s faced up to challenges that look a lot like what they’re struggling with.” He says ex-offenders respond to her “unconditional love” and her “being there for them. They know she will follow through with them. She has a proven track record and that carries a lot.”
She's proud that CIA's become a trusted provider.
"Our specialty is prerelease education, reentry preparation. We know all the resources necessary for them to connect but we won't send you someone who did not commit to working on themselves while they were still locked up. If they're not willing to do that that means when they come out they're going to continue to play games. We address all that on the inside. Their heart has to change.
"We let them know there are opportunities for them to make a change. There were things that happened to them when they were young. It was a process. So we help them look at that process. We work well with individuals who are committed to the discovery of their own purpose and own true personal worth. I believe validation breeds motivation for education to find their vocation.
"If you're going to do that work, and it's very difficult and meaningful, then you can come out here and be anything you want."
In her experience those who make it follow a common path.
"When they stick to their plan, they will succeed and God is always at the core of that. Their gifts and plans had to be spiritually connected because they tried everything else and it didn’t work," she says.
Mickles has many success stories among CIA graduates. One, Tracie Ward, works as her program manager while pursuing a master's degree in health and human services.
Ward, says Mickles, found herself "in the wrong place at the wrong time "and ended up incarcerated when her children were still young.
Ward says she's come a long way with the help of Mickles and others.
"Her program is faith-based which I believe is foundational for a lot of people transforming from something old into something new," says Ward. "I call myself living proof because I'm living proof of overcoming a lot of things. Although I may have made mistakes I am also an overcomer and an achiever.
"I was able to tap more into my spiritual beliefs and that's what helped me get through a lot of what I was going through. Miss Teela believes in people, she believes in validation, she believes in inspiring a person, she never comes off judgmental."
Ward says it's essential returning citizens find individuals like Mickles "that will see past your past." She adds, "My past does not define me. I am who I am today, Years of sobriety. An associate's degree. Great accomplishments. I love being the grandmother I am today."
During her incarceration her three sons were matched with a volunteer family Mickles recruited and trained to act as a support system.
"They were able to fill in in some of the areas my family needed some assistance in," Ward says. "Being able to keep that bond while you're away is a big part of transitioning back into society or into your family or into your role as a mother. It kind of makes or breaks the relationship."
The family remained engaged with Ward and her sons until she was free and reunited with her children. Now Ward's using her own experience to help young women facing similar challenges as she did.
Mickles increasingly sees her work as a continuum. The problems that land adults in prison, she says, start early in life and tend to repeat from generation to generation.
"The men that are locked up all say the same thing – that they joined the gang for a sense of belonging. That's a mandate on society that young men will be OK with getting the crap beat out of them so they can belong and young girls will be OK with having the option of being gang-raped so they can belong. Shame on us.
"The gangs are out there taking our kids. We need to consider an option the boys can go to where they can belong that's positive. That's how CIA got into what we're doing now. All the pieces started falling in place. We've got the whole spectrum covered."
She recently began working with young men at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.
"The boys are just like the men, once you get to that little child inside they let you know everything," she says. "And there's a fear factor. They don't like what they have done, they don't like the choices they have made, but they don't think they have options. They are looking to die before they're 25 or to spend their life in prison. That's what the path of life looks like to them.
"When these young men graduate from my class they're asked, 'What is your main fear about being free?' They say, 'My life.' It all stems from having been engaged with gangs. If someone had a tiff with you from back in the day they will find you. So that gun thing comes into play here. These guys really are holding their piece because there's somebody that might come after them. It's dangerous."
Mickles advocates Interrupting the cycle before it starts.
"What if we don't let the kids get the guns in the first place? What if we gave them an option?"
That's where Raw Dawgs comes in. The Atlanta, Ga.-based program's founder, Joseph Jennings, expects to have it up and running here by the fall.
"The Raw Dawgs program will provide that alternative to gang membership for boys 7 to 18," says Mickles. "It's an incentive program. Tutors will work with kids to help with their academics. Mentors will help with their home life. Kids will be rewarded. It's a youth corps, military-style program. The kids will be drilled.
"We're hoping that within five years with all the operations and networks we have here that we will see a reduction in bullying and dropouts and incarceration of our young people. We don't need another prison, we need more people working together to help our babies see another perspective so they can get out of this situation before they get into it."
Mickles enlists male lifers in the state pen to write cautionary letters to incarcerated young men at NYCF to provide a dose of truth from those who've walked in their shoes. The author of one letter writes:
"It's no help to stay bitter and angry…Yes, its easier to be that way because you don't have to be strong enough to own up to your own bad actions…You don't have to be strong enough to accept the help offered to you…Bitterness and anger make it easy to hide, I get it. I don't have no magic words or cure to fix your situation, whatever it is. There's no simple or fast resolution here…
"Ultimately I have learned no one else has the answer…we are the ones with the answer. If you want life to get better you have to be one who works for it and when you slip up you have to be the one who faces that and fixes things as you get back on track. Never give up on you. Just the fact you have someone who has handed or read to you this letter means there are others who haven't given up on you.
"I make you a promise, homey, you don't give up on yourself and I wont give up on you, and one day we'll look back on life and be thankful we chose to have all the courage to fight for our lives back and to make things better for everyone around us. That's the power of the divine spirit in each of us, that's the power of our humanity at its best.
Mickles says the inmates who pen the letters "are real excited about having something to make their lives significant. They desperately want to be able to give back to the community in some way."
She says the young men who receive the letters and complete her curriculum "have been changed – they're excited about a new life they can have." All of CIA's work is about keeping offenders from recidivism and diverting young people from poor choices that result in doing time.
"It's too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community," she says. "Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there's a lot of community awareness. The community is connecting to the fact these are people."
She says the best deterrent to criminal behavior starts in childhood.
"If we validate our kids at a very early age and they feel they're special they're going to make the right choices."
It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of a correctional facility.
“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” says Mickles. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.
“You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison. No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”
For tickets to the June 28 event call 402-451-4500.
Keep up with CIA at compassioninaction.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.