First Followers bring firsthand experience to helping those fresh out of prison

First Followers bring firsthand experience to helping those fresh out of prison

CHAMPAIGN — For many who step out of a prison cell and back into the world only to find communities that look nothing like what they remember, "success depends on tenacity."

That's what First Followers Peer Mentor Coordinator Tammy Bond tells anyone who walks through the doors of east Champaign's Bethel AME Church looking for help.

Whether they're there in search of work, housing, mental health help or anything else, Bond, First Followers founders Marlon Mitchell and James Kilgore and nine other volunteers do whatever they can to help keep people from falling through the cracks and going back to prison.

It's that work over the past three-and-a-half years that earned them the James R. Burgess Jr./Susan Freiburg Humanitarian Award, which they'll be presented with at today's countywide Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at The Vineyard Church in Urbana.

Unlike other social programs advocating for people who have been affected by the criminal justice system, First Followers does so with the help of volunteers who themselves have been in prison and faced navigating a return to society alone.

When Mitchell first thought of a vision for what First Followers would become, he said he wanted "people with skin in the game" to work with him.

"We always say that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution," he said. "Those people with lived experience are able to provide a different framework because they've seen it and done it.

"Most people you talk to, when they first come home, are unclear as to what they want to do. There's a nervousness. An anxiety. So there's a need for what we do."

It's a need that stretches back decades, Mitchell said, and especially affects African-Americans, who are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP.

And when a person is removed from their community, then returns after years in a high-stress environment, "they have basic needs we take for granted," Mitchell said.

Things like not having state ID or family connections compound on each other and prevent people from getting jobs or the social help they need, Mitchell said.

Often not knowing how to navigate the internet, how to fill out an online application or how to track down a long-lost family member, people who go to First Followers need the most basic levels of help.

"If I don't have the resources to address that or anyone supporting me, how do I get that birth certificate, or that state ID, or that job? All that comes with a cost," Mitchell said. "So we facilitate and help people understand how to advocate for themselves.

"That's the difference between us and charity. You don't just stop in the door, I give you 15, 20 bucks and you're off to the next thing. You have to sit here and learn, because it's all about education."

The people who work at First Followers aren't in it for the money, Mitchell said, noting that Bond is the organization's only paid employee.

"I've always believed that money corrupts people, especially social service agencies," Mitchell said. "When you start to talk about a nonprofit that's trying to serve people who live next door to you, you have a certain level of concern. But then you have these profiteers that come into the community and take advantage of that. That's why we keep this on a volunteer basis."

Another important pillar to the First Followers model is shifting people's mental framework over time. Mitchell said titles like "ex-con," "formerly incarcerated" or "felon" stigmatize and ostracize people from society.

They're labels of someone "that you no longer are," Bond added.

"You have to get away from that type of stigma," she said. "We are formerly incarcerated. We do have a criminal background, but we label ourselves as people first and foremost."

Honor roll

Leading up to Friday’s 5 p.m. event at The Vineyard Church of Urbana, News-Gazette Media will profile three award winners who’ll be saluted at Champaign County’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration:

First Followers, James R. Burgess Jr./Susan Freiburg Humanitarian Award

Alissia Young, Doris Hoskins Prestigious Community Service Award

Seon Williams, Dr. King Outstanding Achievement Award

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