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Queens Chronicle

Not just back to school, back to life

The Fortune Society offers former inmates the tools for change

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Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2014 10:30 am

Jim, an English and science teacher, stands by the board, looking at his class expectantly.

“Does anyone know?” he asks. “What do we think?”

His students, eager to please, begin hurling out answers.

“Evaporation,” one said.

“Heat,” said another.

After a few more unsuccessful guesses, the class silences.

“The first thing a hurricane needs, before anything else, is water,” Jim said as he writes on the whiteboard with a red dry-erase marker.

The students sigh in frustration, as if to say a hurricane’s need for water should go without mention.

Unlike most students, these men and women are studying every day this summer, because, unlike most students, the class is made up entirely of formerly incarcerated individuals.

The Fortune Society, where they’re being taught, is an organization that seeks to make the road back to civilization a little easier for those who served their time.

Assisting convicted felons is not something exclusively done by Fortune. There are many private and public groups that have the same mission. But at Fortune, it isn’t only about what is being done, but how it is being done.

“We provide a full meal for any of our clients here,” Barry Campbell, assistant to the Fortune Society’s CEO, said. “And that’s not something we get funding to do. The food budget is completely in the red, but it’s something we like to do. It’s something the clients notice too.”

Client satisfaction is the No. 1 priority for the Fortune Society. The fact staff members are required to call the people who utilize the service “clients” instead of “former inmates” is telling, because, as Campbell said, when the men and women step out of the prison gates and enter the Fortune Society’s facility in Long Island City, they go from being a number to a human being.

Donald Gray, 54, may not give off the vibe of a former felon. The gentle giant spends most of his time reading, playing chess and creating patterns on handkerchiefs.

He has a warm demeanor that seems to stick to anyone he interacts with and his motivation to become a better person runs deep into his core.

“I ran the streets for a long time,” he said. “I’d be in and out of prison, but there came a time when I looked in the mirror and I just thought ‘Man, you can’t be doing this anymore.’ I had to take off the mask and deal with the little man on the inside.”

Gray was first arrested at age 15 for drug possession. Now, he is one of several students studying to obtain his high school equivalency diploma.

“When I first came in here, I thought it looked just like a college,” he said, looking around at the library Fortune created for its clients. “It’s just a bright and welcoming place, and all they ask is for obedience and for you to show up on time. For nothing, they give you everything.”

But even with “everything,” much of the work comes from the men and women themselves.

“Having been in their position myself, I can look at someone and say immediately to myself, ‘Nope, he’s not ready,’” Campbell said. “But as our president and CEO says, we’re in the business of planting seeds. Yeah, he may not be ready now, but there could be a time when he’s sitting in a cell, rethinking his life and wanting to change. He’s going to think back to a place that made him feel safe and he’s going to remember walking into Fortune and being hugged by the woman at the front desk, being offered a meal and facing no judgement.”

The Fortune Society uses a role-model strategy to get through to the people it serves. Almost all of the staff members, including counselors and administrators, served some amount of time in a state penitentiary.

Campbell said the facility emphasizes leading by example.

“You know, I may be a new guy and see someone like Donald and see how he has himself together and how he acts and really feed off of that,” he said. “I may never say a word to Donald while I’m here but in my mind, I’ve made the decision to emulate Donald.”

The school semester will continue through the fall months and eventually, Gray and his class will take the General Educational Development exam.

It can be a long road for some of the clients. The Fortune Society has no requirements for the GED program and some people come in barely knowing how to read.

To compensate for that, the program offers tutoring almost every day and provides study lounges and free coffee for anyone who needs a little pick-me-up before hitting the books.

Most clients, including Gray, spend hours at the Fortune Society, trying to memorize their history lessons or work on their writing skills.

For many of them, their high school diploma is just a first step.

Gray, who works in a halfway house, would like to go to college to become a counselor and eventually would like to work for the Fortune Society, sharing the knowledge he learned with the next generation.

“I see the younger kids and I can see where they’re headed,” he said. “It was the same for me. You want to run the streets and that’s all you ever learn. But the streets don’t give you family or friends. When I was up to no good, no one wanted to talk to me. My phone never rang.

“Now that I’ve embraced who I am and distanced myself from that old life, I get calls all the time.”

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