The story below is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Finding My Smile”.
When a man gets out of prison he is handed $100 and told “Good luck.” The first day out generally goes something like this: With the hundred dollars in hand, the first stop is McDonalds. Prison food is notoriously bad, so the guy will blow upwards of $15 just trying all sorts of better food at the fast food chain. Once he’s full, he’ll likely head to the nearest Wal Mart to buy a pair of non-prison jeans (meaning jeans a person could actually move in). There goes another $40. If he has family in the area, the man will go home to say hello. Almost immediately a family member will ask if he has any money. He’ll be forced to hand it over to help support the family. If that’s not the case—if he’s not asked to fund the family—he’ll likely take his family out to dinner to celebrate the release. What’s left of the money he was handed that morning will disappear, and he’ll be staring at day two broke, jobless, and back in the environment that first allowed him to commit a crime. If he used to use drugs or alcohol, there’s very little room or inspiration to stay sober. He’ll relapse and likely end up back in prison.
My grandmother, Rebecca Wolf, used to always tell me, “You can become whatever you want, David. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you otherwise. You can do it.” With her voice of encouragement ever present in my mind, I decided that what I wanted to do was to help these men stay out of prison. I wanted to create a lifeline that would protect them from relapsing back into the system. Which is where the Wolf House began.
The Wolf House
My mother sponsored us with our first $1000. Building upon her donation, I got state and community sponsors who would help me establish a halfway-house to support former inmates getting back on their feet and back into the community.
Three weeks before a man’s release, I met with him in the prison and explained what was about to happen. I told him about the $100 and how quickly it disappeared. I told him about the relapse rates and the risks of going it alone too quickly. Then, I offered him a solution: once he left prison, he would come straight to the Wolf House—no family visits, no restaurant stops. His $100 would become his down payment for the first month of room and board at the Wolf House. He could visit with his family—under supervision—for an hour in the house. They would be informed that once that visit was over, he would not be able to see them again until he had found a job and been approved by the Wolf House community to get a day pass to leave the house. If the family needed food supplies, the Wolf House would offer them access to the pantry until the father’s income could help keep the family alive.
After the family visit, he’d be allowed out of the house only to look for a job—and another man would be assigned as a job-hunting partner to keep everyone honest. Every night there would be group counseling meetings to allow the men time to talk and digest what had happened that day. If he needed special sorts of counseling, say, for gambling addictions or sex addictions, he’d be allowed to attend those specialized meetings. Otherwise, his time would be restricted to the Wolf House until the Wolf House community decided that he had earned day or 24 hour passes. Of the income from his job, $360 would go towards paying his room and board expenses. After six months of rehabilitation back into society, the man would be released into the larger community and be on his own to live by the laws and maintain the rules of his parole. Through the structure of the Wolf House, though, the chances for his success were in his favor. If he did well, he’d likely never go back to prison.
For the men who decided to join the Wolf House community, the experience was both trying and rewarding. A halfway-house must have structure and accountability, much like prison. Men who acted out or violated the rules were not tolerated. They’d be reported to their parole officers and sent back to prison. If anyone mistreated those in the community, he’d be restricted in his freedoms when it came time for issuing a day-pass. I was responsible for these men’s success, which I took very seriously. Every night I would check to make sure that they were asleep in their beds, looking for the whites of their eyes before I could validate their presence. As trying as these rules were to the men, if they stuck it out I would do everything in my power to ensure their success. From job references to court appeals, I’d make sure that they were well represented.
The Wolf House’s success could not be denied. Soon we had men placed through the state and federal courts, through rehab centers, and simply through word of mouth. Some men came to us before prison in the hopes that Wolf House could get them clean and prevent them from spiraling downwards once they entered the system. Other men were coming to us without prison time sentenced. They just needed to get clean and needed our structure to manage the process. Very soon, we had three separate locations.
I was the sole full-time employee of The Wolf House, but a good friend of mine, Drexel, became my right hand man. A former heroin addict and alcoholic, Drexel had survived being shot, overdosing, and nearly being crushed to death during an arrest. His family had even bought him a burial plot, certain that he would die before he turned 30. With his good fortune, though, he became a man convicted that he should be helping others. Drexel kept our assorted locations going, and kept our men honest. And he loved his job, loved helping the other guys get their lives back together. He was my greatest support in the house, and he kept all of us going.
As with the Wolf House, I started the Smile Out Loud Foundation to help people succeed. You can support the Smile Out Loud Foundation, and scholarships for youth with dyslexia, by making a tax deductible contribution or by buying my books (100% of the proceeds support the Smile Out Loud Foundation).