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Discover Your Giving Heart: Jail Chaplains

Photos By Hillary Ehlen

Ever since he was eight-years-old, Wil Dort has been cutting hair. Learning from his uncles and practicing on other kids, he was always fascinated by the ability to turn hair into something beautiful. After coming to the United States from Haiti in 1997, Dort continued to cut hair, learning how to transition from scissors to clippers and improving himself all along the way. However, Dort’s journey from immigrant to barbershop owner didn’t follow a straight and narrow path.

In 2006, Dort spent time incarcerated, but thanks to the hope and compassion provided by Jail Chaplains, a local nonprofit that provides inmates with spiritual guidance and support, he was able to achieve his aspirations. Through Jail Chaplains’ programming, Dort made the choice to change his life and embark on a business plan to help other returned citizens like himself.

“The men and women that find themselves incarcerated or inside the walls of the Cass County Jail are not bad people, they’re broken and hurting and their choices have led to a lot of broken relationships. And I think most of them know what they have been doing isn’t working very well,” says Jail Chaplains Executive Director Gerri Leach.

Dort is one of many who chose to attend Jail Chaplains’ programming while incarcerated. “They have a lot of time in jail. Time to think. And by giving them new information, they get to decide if they are going to use their time to learn and try to make different decisions. And if that is their goal, then the Jail Chaplain programs are very attractive to them,” said Leach of the Cass County inmates. In a few words, the organization, “Takes Jesus to jail.” Leach joked that they often find inmates’ interests in the organization are first piqued by the knowledge that the programs sometimes offer treats or opportunities to learn new skills like knitting. “Whatever gets them there, and then the Holy Spirit gets ahold of their heart,” she said.

Since the new Cass County Jail’s construction in 2002 (which included a designated programs room), Jail Chaplains has been able to offer over 20 hours of faith-based programs weekly. Jail Chaplains’ full-time Chaplain, Mike Sonju, and a team of volunteers provide a wide range of Christian faith-based programs for inmates, including bible studies and life skills training like anger management and addiction recovery.

npschmidt final 03340One of the programs that Jail Chaplains utilizes in and outside the prison is the Living Free ministry. Living Free serves as a Christian ministry that helps individuals, families and communities dealing with life-controlling problems through a curriculum that teaches life skills through scripture. There are now five Living Free small groups in the jail, as well as the opportunity for former inmates to continue with the group after they are released. In addition to serving those in jail and returned citizens, the program has better equipped the local faith community to be more accepting and understanding to those whose lives have taken different paths than their own. “When we are in a small group with [the inmates or returned citizens], we are learning from them too. It’s the exchange of information, where we can come from totally different backgrounds, but we each have lived experience that can be of benefit to the other,” said Leach.

“I think a big part of what we do is, to the best of our abilities, we accept people where they are at and give them hope and compassion. We don’t need somebody to tell us when we’ve screwed up, a lot of times we know. But to hear that regardless of what your past is, that doesn’t define who you are going forward. And God loves you and so do we, and today can be the first day of the rest of your life,” said Leach. “So having that opportunity to share that hope and that message and offer them compassion, it’s really significant and can help them start to accept themselves differently, too.”

Leach shared that there is often a tremendous amount of shame involved with the inmates they work with. In their role at the organization, she sees the importance of meeting people where they are at. “We don’t have all the baggage of those prior choices they’ve made. So if they are ready to change, I think we are better equipped to help them on that journey than maybe their own family,” said Leach. She noted that family members have often heard, “I’m going to change,” and then never have seen the results. Jail Chaplains, however, don’t have the prior history of whatever mistakes or errors they’ve made and can start a fresh relationship with each inmate.

For many returning citizens, the change in lifestyle and surroundings is difficult. Dort found that while he was incarcerated, he felt supported, but he knew that once he got out, his past would try to get him back to his old ways. “Our whole life we learn the party, with the drugs and running around with different individuals playing different characters— that has been us for forever. And then I was trying this new thing that I didn’t know anything about and they tell you to rely on faith and it’s like, what does that even look like?” said Dort. For Dort, his support system from Jail Chaplains helped keep him accountable and provided him the team he needed to stay on the new path he created.

“The path they have put me on helped me progressively get to where I am today. As far as being a business owner and helping out people, it’s that seed they sowed in my life,” said Dort.

npschmidt final 03297The path Dort took when changing his ways was rooted in his love for cutting hair. While in jail, Dort completed barber college and then, upon his release, opened Skill Cutz Barbershop & Salon in 2008. Dort never wanted his barbering to just be a job. He always intended on seeing how far he could take the profession and to see how he could grow it into something bigger. Living in this region, Dort discovered that there was a lack of barber schools, especially ones that taught how to cut ethnic hair. He became an important resource in the area for these techniques and began to teach others how to do them. To provide an opportunity for those wanting to learn from him, he founded Skill Cutz Barber College. “There is a cry out for barbers all over the states. So it was an opportunity to find a problem and be the answer to that problem,” he said.

“God provided barbering as a way out for me,” said Dort. “One of the reasons I believe God brought barbering into my life is that, when you have two felonies, where do you go? Who is going to hire you? Or make decent enough money to support not just my family here, but back in Haiti. To be able to provide a job for another felon, we have to open our hearts. We could all be in that situation. A lot of times it is just one decision that brought us to this point.”

For those with a felony record, Leach noted that they often do not get to work a job they love. Oftentimes, it is low pay and is whatever they can find. The existence of Skill Cutz, a training program and an employment opportunity for felons, is exciting to Leach. “When they find something like this where they can provide a decent living for their family and be able to do something that they love and they’re contributing to others around them, it’s like….how incredible is that? They are not just a citizen that has returned to the community. They are contributing to our community in a really great, helpful way,” she said. Jail Chaplins’ influence created a domino effect on helping others. Jail Chaplains helped Dort, and now Dort is helping other former inmates start anew. Katterrius Reams is just one of the men whom Dort and Jail Chaplains have helped. Reams connected with Jail Chaplains while incarcerated and eventually came to love the program, continuing it upon his release. Through the program, Reams found Dort and entered the barber college to train under him and begin a new career. “I was doing a lot of jobs and, to be honest, I wanted to find something that would actually speak to me,” said Reams. Before finding barbering, he was driving trucks and doing other jobs he could find, but he wasn’t fulfilled. As someone who had always been creative, he found Skill Cutz as a perfect fit for him.

npschmidt final 03373Within Skill Cutz Barber College, Dort teaches and certifies his students and gives job placement opportunities for them at the Skill Cutz Barbershop & Salon. “As long as I have this energy, I’ve got to work as much as I can, and then while I’m at it, I’m looking to give opportunities to people that are looking for a change,” said Dort.

The programs and the support that Jail Chaplains provides helps returned citizens learn that they can start a new life. Through the compassion extended to Dort by Jail Chaplains, he had the support and encouragement to embark on an enterprise that has since changed many more lives.

Awareness for the work Jail Chaplains does also encourages our community to be equipped with the ability to welcome former inmates back into the community. “If someone is incarcerated and we shun them when they get out, how are they ever going to heal and learn to do life differently? We can extend our hand and say welcome and do what we can to help them, to show they there’s a different path and that they don’t have to keep doing the same thing. But if we shun them, we basically send them back to their old friends […] So if we care about our community, we will try and do something different,” said Leach. Dort agreed with Leach, saying that if we shut returned citizens out, they will be a menace to society and cause more harm than good. But if you are providing opportunities for them to be better, our whole society will benefit.

“It’s a great experience. I can say this, give [Jail Chaplains] a chance. That’s what I did, I gave it a chance. Once I gave it a chance, everything opened up for me. I failed everybody, but I gave something a chance,” said Reams.

Thanks to the ongoing impact of Jail Chaplains and the chances they provide, people like Dort and Reams can continue to receive the support they need to turn their life into a new path. To support new beginnings like those provided to Dort and Reams, consider adding Jail Chaplains to your Giving Hearts Day donation roster this year.

Jail Chaplains
PO Box 6444
Fargo, ND 58109

Written by Josiah Kopp


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