LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - A new fund will boost a program helping people get out of jail and into the classroom and workplace.
African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate more than five times higher than people who are white, according to the NAACP, and a criminal record significantly reduces the likelihood of getting a job, even more so for minorities.
The network of groups SURJ, or Showing Up for Racial Justice, promotes racial equality across the country.
The local SURJ chapter is developing a $12,000 fund to help Project Proven, which works in the La Crosse County Jail and on Western Technical College's campus to help those transitioning out of jail.
"They're sincere,” Project Proven manager Tonya Van Tol said. “They're trying to, they want to give back."
Project Proven began five years ago with Van Tol making Friday jail visits.
"As a one person show, I was it,” she said. “A lot of people have written them off.”
The project has now helped more than 500 people take that first step out of jail, leading them into employment and education opportunities.
"It touches lives in a way a lot of programs don't,” Van Tol said. “Education opens up a lot of doors for people."
But the path back into society isn't always straightforward.
"Things that pop up unexpectedly, they might be inconveniences for you and I, but for other people, those things can completely derail a plan,” she said. “So issues with child care, transportation, interview clothes, small things."
That's why Van Tol said the new fund from SURJ she calls the “barrier buster” will help clear the way for her clients, many who are of color.
"A lot of people don't necessarily realize how much discrimination occurs,” she said.
"People of color have a much more difficult time finding a job as it is, you add coming out of jail, that makes it a double whammy,” SURJ member Pat Lunney said. “What these funds will hopefully do is really start them on a successful path."
The money could go toward obtaining a GED, books for classes or anything that helps those out of jail move forward.
"Having resources that are available where they feel there's a connection, hope and support, and not shaming or blaming, it's huge,” Van Tol said.
Lunney said SURJ's goal is to raise $12,000 this year to set up a self-sustaining fund for Project Proven, and then build it to $50,000 over the next few years.
To donate, go to the Western Foundation’s donation site, select “Other” as the designation and enter “SURJ” in the text field. Donations with a note or memo can also be sent to this address:
Coleman Center Room 130
400 7th Street North
La Crosse, WI 54601
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