Continuous Care for Ex-Offenders in Washington State

Northwest  |  November 8, 2022
Ex-offender Michael Florez and a classmate in the Reentry Program of South Seattle College work together to deliver free food to ex-offenders in need through the Hunger Relief 2.0 initiative. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

Written by Hong Wen Charng; Yu Feng Wang; Chen Yong Yi
Translated by
H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch volunteers traveled to Olympia, Washington, on August 17 and 18, 2022, to attend Washington State’s King County Community Partnership for Transition Solutions (KCCPTS) Summer Institute there. Due to COVID-19, the organizers had suspended the Summer Institute for two years, yet resumed it in 2022. 

Continuous Care for Ex-Offenders in Washington State

The KCCPTS Summer Institute, in partnership with South Seattle College, is an opportunity for reentry service providers, educators, faith‐based and community organizations, Tribal Nations, and individuals affected by incarceration to network, share expertise, identify and refine best practices, and foster sustainable partnerships.

The 2022 event had more than 120 participants. Among attendees were: Representatives of Washington State correctional facilities; defense attorneys; Reentry Program teachers and students; education navigators for ex-offenders; and civic groups that have long helped people after release from prison, such as Tzu Chi and the Union Gospel.

Tzu Chi volunteers and others who serve ex-offenders take group photos during the 2022 KCCPTS Summer Institute. Photos/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

Tzu Chi Wins the Best Community Partner Award Again

Tzu Chi received the Best Community Partnership Award at the event for its continued efforts to help ex-offenders and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Hunger Relief initiative. After the pandemic began in 2020, it became even more difficult for ex-offenders to find jobs, and consequently, having sufficient food supplies became a big problem. 

Tzu Chi USA and Joseph Garcia, Lead Instructor and Program Coordinator of Corrections Education Programs at South Seattle College, launched the Hunger Relief 1.0 initiative. Tzu Chi paid for gasoline, so ex-offenders could deliver food to ex-offenders in need and their families. In 2021, Tzu Chi continued the help and even expanded the scope, starting the Hunger Relief 2.0 program to help more families. The Hunger Relief 3.0 program would begin in October 2022. 

Joseph Garcia, Lead Instructor and Program Coordinator of Corrections Education Programs at South Seattle College helps many ex-offenders. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch
Tzu Chi has had on the residents of McNeil Island, known for its prison. Tzu Chi volunteers visited the island in 2015 to provide humanitarian and financial aid for ex-offenders. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

Because of this ongoing assistance, the KCCPTS Summer Institute presented the Best Community Partner Award to Tzu Chi. It is the third time Tzu Chi USA has received the award for its volunteers’ ongoing care for ex-offenders; the first two were in 2013 and 2019.

The partnership between the Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch and South Seattle College’s Reentry Program began in 2009 and has been going on for 13 years. Tzu Chi supports their graduation ceremonies and gives scholarships to students who wish to continue their college education. Tzu Chi also provides bus tickets, living expenses, and clothing if needed. In addition, they offer monthly humanities classes, such as Jing Si Aphorism sharing and writing, watercolor painting classes, and other courses. 

Moreover, Tzu Chi’s aid is unique as it brings material support alongside a novel spiritual aspect. Tzu Chi volunteers always serve communities and assist with gratitude for the opportunity to help, with respect, and love, extended to all care recipients unconditionally. These qualities are particularly touching for ex-offenders, who feel valued while endeavoring to reenter society.

Tzu Chi
Tzu Chi volunteers always bow respectfully when offering aid, and ex-offenders feel valued because of this ritual. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

The KCCPTS Summer Institute invited Tzu Chi volunteers to share in a panel discussion. They spoke about the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and presented the various services Tzu Chi USA’s Seattle Branch offers ex-offenders. Introducing Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms was a special part of the volunteers’ sharing. They gave each participant a copy of a Jing Si Aphorism book as a gift so that they could discover the words of wisdom immediately.

Jing Si Aphorisms tell us many correct concepts. By sharing them with ex-offenders, we hope to provide them with a correct and positive view of life.

Tzu Chi
During a panel discussion, Tzu Chi volunteers introduce Jing Si Aphorisms to the audience. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

The Rose: A Symbol With a Story

The theme of the 2022 KCCPTS Summer Institute was The Way Forward, symbolized by a rose. Michael Florez, an ex-offaender studying at South Seattle College, drew the original artwork, which carries a story behind it. 

Michael took the microphone during the conference and confidently explained the meaning of the rose to an audience of more than 100. It was hard to believe that he had served 20 years in prison and had been back in society for less than two years.

A drawing by ex-offender Michael Florez becomes the poster artwork of the 2022 KCCPTS Summer Institute. Michael’s story appears below and aptly encapsulates the theme. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

When Michael left the county correctional facility in February 2021, it was at the height of the pandemic. Local buses had stopped operating. He stood on the street, overwhelmed, not knowing where to go. The clothes he wore were the only clothing he had, given to him by the facility, and he had just $48 in his pocket, also provided by the prison.

After 20 years of incarceration, Michael had few if no friends or family to count on. Standing there, he felt lost and scared. Fortunately, he’d memorized the phone number of his probation officer, who later introduced him to Joseph Garcia from the South Seattle College Reentry Program. Joe encouraged Michael to continue his education and guided him to Tzu Chi for help.

On April 15 that year, Tzu Chi volunteers met with Michael for the first time in the parking lot of South Seattle College. The pandemic was grave at the time, so it wasn’t easy even for the general public to seek resources. In Michael’s case, having just been released from prison, he had nothing. 

Michael recalls that the first thing Tzu Chi volunteers, whom he now calls “Angels in Blue,” asked when they talked to him was simply, “What size are you?“ Tzu Chi began by giving him clothes and shoes. Later, when he started college and needed a computer, Tzu Chi gave him one. Then Tzu Chi volunteers taught him how to use it since he didn’t know how. 

I'm truly blessed, Tzu Chi USA and Angels in Blue; you will always have my loyalty, love, and my compassion for you.

Michael felt very moved by all the help he received. He thought, “How can I repay these kind-hearted people?” Since he had no money, he made his own thank you card, drawing a rose on a piece of paper, black, because he only had a black pen. He also wrote and enclosed a letter. 

Having seen the original card, Joe thought Michael’s drawing was exceptional and encouraged him to submit it to the competition for the 2022 KCCPTS Summer Institute theme. More than five hundred days later, a committee selected his drawing out of eleven competitors to be the representative artwork appearing on the conference’s poster.

For Michael, the rose symbolized the process and state of mind during his own rehabilitation journey, beginning at the stem, climbing through the thorns, discovering the vitality of fresh leaves, and reaching the adornment of the flower’s fragrant petals.

While he focused on the crowning flower, his journey to that pinnacle began while living in a halfway house with three other ex-offenders. The climb up the thorny stem was when he had to do everything for his studies on an Android phone, and staring at the screen hurt his eyes and gave him a headache. The learning path was prickly and painful, indeed. 

The vitalization aspect of fresh leaves began to emerge when he, a 51-year-old Hispanic first-generation college student, embraced life on the South Seattle College campus. He found himself excited about the culture, social activities, and network of fellow students, lifelong friends in the making. The beauty of the petals was finally manifesting as he joined like-minded people on the same journey, each gaining knowledge within this learning environment while growing personally and spiritually.

The Hunger Relief Initiative Continues

Michael Florez had already earned 34 credits at South Seattle College with straight As. Moreover he felt that he’d found a new direction, convinced that life is worthwhile only when he transcends his small self and realizes his big self. He discussed this with his teacher Joseph Garcia, expressing interest in participating in the Hunger Relief Initiative and becoming someone who gives.

The Hunger Relief initiative allows participating ex-offenders to experience the joy of giving. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

He learned from Joe that the 2020 Hunger Relief mission was an effort by ex-offenders to deliver food to help others who had reentered society yet needed food. In 2021, he discussed with Joe about upgrading the initiative to Hunger Relief 2.0, becoming the main undertaker of this venture. Tzu Chi was the first to support his proposal. Michael then communicated his idea to fellow students who shared the same background, and they duly formed a team to deliver 1,000 pounds of food each week. 

Every Thursday at 4:00 AM, they go to the government-operated food bank to pick up food. Four hours later, at around 8:00, Tzu Chi volunteers will accompany them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and start the distribution operation. In addition to Tzu Chi’s support along the way, kind-hearted people also gave them a large truck to facilitate food delivery. 

Getting supplies from the food bank requires much physical work, but the participating ex-offenders engage enthusiastically. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA Seattle Branch

From October 2021 to 2022, they delivered 30,000 pounds of food over 30 weeks, helping at least 6,000 people. This winter, they are carrying out Hunger Relief 3.0. At present, Michael has recruited a team of 12, and the effect of goodness has galvanized people to support them. Not long ago, the truck they were using stopped working again, but there have been donations and plans to give them a vehicle, so they don’t have to worry about delivery in the future.

“I had a 4.0 GPA at South Seattle College because they believed in me,” Michael explained. “And if they believed in me, my fellow inmates who had just gotten out of prison would believe in me, and they enrolled in South Seattle College as well.” Addressing the audience at the 2022 KCCPTS Summer Institute, Michael continued, “It was a chain reaction of goodness that is beyond everything. That’s how we formed the core team of Hunger Relief at South Seattle College, which now has 12 members. It’s a wonderful thing, and the team continues to grow. I thank you all, and I love you all and am really grateful for all the blessings.”

His personal journey and message are an inspiration to all on this path of reentry into society after incarceration.

Wherever you go, wherever I see you, what I see is humanistic caring. I also learned how to appreciate and cherish blessings. The voice of trust from others gave me confidence, and then I passed that trust on to others who had just been released from prison; then those people passed that trust on one by one.

Awakening the Heart

The Hunger Relief program started from 1.0 to 2.0. Next, 3.0 is about to start. Tzu Chi's support is not only to help with fuel expenses or buying things; more importantly, it's about letting ex-offenders help other ex-offenders. There is a team formed by ex-offenders on their own; they go to the grocery store to buy things, go to the food bank to collect food, and then deliver the supplies to communities in need, helping at least 70 families every month. As Master Cheng Yen taught us, this kind of good deed lights up the heart of each person, and then this light in the heart will light up the hearts of others, and the light will continue.

The U.S. government hopes that after serving their sentences, inmates will be able to reenter society successfully. In addition to the education they receive in prison, ex-offenders are encouraged to enter university-based rehabilitation programs upon release, where they can earn course credits, obtain a professional license, earn a degree from a community college, or even go on to university. Usually, after ex-offenders acquire a set of skills, they can find a job more easily and become a contributing member of society.

Tzu Chi volunteers in Seattle work hard to support the needs of ex-offenders in the area. Additionally, Tzu Chi USA volunteers are involved in a prison correspondence program, as part of which they exchange letters with inmates nationwide. Concurrently, our friends in prison receive issues of the Tzu Chi USA Journal, with stories of good deeds and social service that inspire their hearts and enhance their rehabilitation. 

Tzu Chi USA’s activities and missions aim to aid all in need unconditionally, in the spirit of one family. Thus, we pay attention to vulnerable groups and those who may get left behind. Your generosity and love empower all we do!

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