May 19, 2020
Some 15,000 people will emerge from Tennessee penitentiaries this year. In Nashville, member Project Return provides returning citizens with the resources and services needed to gain employment and build full and free lives.
During the past couple months, though, COVID-19 has seriously disrupted Project Return’s ability to deliver its signature holistic services and move individuals onto the path of a successful return. Faced with this reality, they have shifted into crisis response mode with ingenuity, resolve and compassion.
In March, when Project Return’s staff was forced to work from home, they suspended their staffing and property solutions enterprises and took to the phones in hopes of staying connected with their hundreds of constituents. This soon proved to be unworkable, so they turned their large parking lot into an open-air reentry services hub. They marked off six-foot intervals with bright yellow tape, created clear signage for distancing, and collected sawhorses and other objects to block off both ends of the lot from car traffic. For now, they set up tables, tents and safety accessories each morning and are open for business.
Throughout April, Project Return’s focus centered on doing everything possible to help people survive the lack of work. Newly released individuals who have no home and cannot claim unemployment assistance are supplied with a tent, sleeping bag and food to stay alive. Those fortunate enough to be under a roof receive rent money to sustain this housing.
As of early May, while subsistence services continue, Project Return is working to ramp up its staffing business PROe, and has reopened its other enterprise PROPS, which delivers commercial cleaning and lawncare services. PROPS has also developed a new expertise, disinfecting services, especially geared toward companies that are preparing to reopen. As these transitional employment opportunities resume, Project Return has reactivated its usual support services, outfitting workers with the tools and attire needed to perform their new job, coaching them on how to budget their new earnings, and positioning them for future promotion.
Executive Director Bettie Kirkland tells us, "Our usual approach at Project Return is all about embracing people and getting them successfully employed, and the coronavirus makes that extremely difficult, plus the volume of need is overwhelming. We're nevertheless powering forward with our work on the frontline, being meaningfully but safely proximate, and helping people to survive today so that they can succeed tomorrow."