A much-needed nonprofit helps ex-cons turn their lives around … and put them on stage.
By BETTY BRINK
If a dozen close family members had each spent long stretches in prison, the last thing most of their kin might want to do would be to hang out with more ex-offenders. But for Kay Smith, who has watched three brothers, three sisters-in-law, and half a dozen nieces and nephews be carted off to prisons over the past 25 years, hanging with former convicts is her life’s work and her passion.
Once a year, a part of that passion gets presented to the public, in a play written and acted by ex-cons about their experiences. This year’s version opens this week at the North Side’s Rose Marine Theater.
Smith, 63, is the CEO and executive director of Texas ReEntry Services, a nonprofit she founded 10 years ago to help men and women returning to Tarrant County from state and federal prisons adjust to life on the outside and to survive in what she knows all too well can be a hostile environment.
“It’s a terrible challenge to come back into society when there is no support system, no way for these people to know how or where to get help for such basics as housing and medical needs,” she said. “And when doors are closed in their faces when they try and find work, they are going to go back to their old ways of survival,and that means of course that sooner or later they’ll wind up back in prison. Our work here is to break that cycle.”
Jan Fersing, a retired Fort Worth developer who has volunteered with Smith’s agency for two years and is now the chairman of its board, said Smith and her small staff have done just that for thousands of ex-felons. “It is simply amazing what she can get done with so few resources,” he said.
The nonprofit’s annual budget is only $300,000, he said, yet so far this year it has provided a long list of services from job placement to housing to educational training to health services for more than 1,500 ex-offenders. Smith, who has a master’s degree in social work, gives ex-cons a dignity that the larger society does not, Fersing said. “She sees their humanity. To her, they are fellow humans who may have made bad choices but who desperately want to turn their lives around.”
When Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks was looking for help in 2005 to organize the county’s re-entry effort, he tapped Smith. She co-chaired the committee that developed the plan for the Tarrant County Reentry Council, a broad coalition of residents, elected officials and organizations – including government, secular and faith-based groups – that provides services for ex-offenders. “Kay was invaluable, providing knowledge and hands-on experience during the council’s formative years,” he said.
Smith now serves on the board of that council as well as heading up her own nonprofit. The county re-entry council is a need that Brooks has been pushing for years. Between 5,000 and 6,000 former convicts are sent back to Tarrant County every year, Brooks said, and there are more than 150,000 living in the county. “Many wind up back in prison, not because they don’t want to work, but because no one will hire them,” he said. “If one isn’t moved by the compassion factor, then one must be moved by the economic factor,” Brooks said. “We can no longer afford this continual revolving door of recidivism. … We spend millions of tax dollars putting folks in prison, but very little to help them stay out of prison. … That has got to change.” Smith’s agency is a blueprint for that kind of initiative, he said.
In the last 18 months, Smith’s non-profit has placed 154 former inmates in jobs that pay an average of $10 an hour, according to data from employment coordinator Barbara Tennyson, an accountant who is also an ex-felon. Smith has signed up 317 companies to a commitment to hire ex-inmates, an achievement that Tennyson said is based in large part on Smith’s strong advocacy on their behalf as well as the thoroughness of the educational, vocational, and job-readiness programs her clients must complete before they are recommended for employment.
“What these employers find out,” Fersing said, “is that most of the men and women we send them make much better employees. They’ll give 200 percent, they are so determined to prove themselves.” It is easy to “get soft” in this kind of work, he added, “but Kay is the perfect example of ‘tough love.’ … If someone messes up, falls back into drugs and alcohol, doesn’t show up for work, or fails to pay the rent, for example, he or she is dropped from the program.” Her success, he said, is partly due to the fact that Smith’s six paid staffers are all former inmates. Not only do they relate to the clients, but they are role models for the ex-offenders seeking help.
As word of her work has spread across the county, especially among families who have or have had someone behind bars, she has been “blessed”, Smith said, with dozens of volunteers, including social work interns sent to her by the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas, and Texas Woman’s University. These students get real-world, hands-on experience, she said. “I give them clients to work with from start to finish.”
Today the nonprofit operates out of a rabbit-warren of offices in a restored and brightly painted building on Race Street in the Riverside neighborhood east of downtown Fort Worth. The only unpaid staff member is Smith, who spends about 14 hours a day, five days a week, overseeing the agency’s wide range of social services, including GED and literacy classes, job readiness training, employment services, housing, food, medical services, and a counselor who deals exclusively with HIV/AIDS victims. She has just added a staffer to help juvenile ex-offenders with their special needs, from getting back in school to staying out of gangs. Her husband, Joe Smith, a retiree from Bell Helicopter, is a volunteer for her agency and supports her work by “keeping the bills paid at home,” she said, with a wry smile. They live comfortably in Burleson and have two grown children, both college graduates.
But life was not always comfortable for Kay Smith. She was born in Fort Worth into a poor and “extremely dysfunctional” family with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked long hours to support five children. “We pretty much raised ourselves,” she said. Smith never finished high school; one brother joined the Navy, but her three other brothers wound up in prison, along with their wives and some of their children. “At one time, my brother and his son shared a cell,” she said. All of their crimes were drug-related.
When she was 44, Smith made a dramatic turn in her life. She got her GED, enrolled in a junior college, and went on to get a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in social work from UTA. “Then I said to myself, and to God, ‘What am I gonna do with this?’ ” The answer came to her immediately, she said. “I knew I had to use this degree to help ex-offenders because of all the tragedies that drugs and prison had brought to my family.” Today, one of her brothers is dead, and the other family members are out and living straight. “But, there was a toll,” she said – several are in poor health, one has had a triple bypass, and “there are all of those lost years.”
She started out small, doing case management work with ex-felons at homeless shelters. She then opened a small office, began to get grants to add educational programs, did outreach to agencies such as HUD, which provided funds for housing, and she became well-known with probation officers, who sent clients.
Smith chokes back tears when she speaks of some of those clients, especially the ones who have turned their lives around after committing horrendous crimes. She told the story of one young man who, she said, “got out of prison 18 months ago after serving 26 years for killing a man in a drug deal gone bad when he was in his teens. … In all that time, he never had a visit from anyone. His family abandoned him.” He showed up at Smith’s office and – after going through her job training programs, – got a job at Denny’s, where she said he’s doing well. He even has an apartment. But that isn’t what brings the tears. “All on his own, without my knowledge, he called the mother of the man he killed and arranged to meet her to make amends, to ask her forgiveness. The mother forgave him.” At that point, Smith stopped talking for a minute to regain her composure. “You have to have boundaries,” she said. “Sometimes it is hard.”
On a recent morning, the agency was abuzz with activity, from the sun-filled waiting room where a half-dozen men and women were filling out intake questionnaires to a large classroom in the back where three young men were bantering with one another as they waited to take a preliminary GED test.
Generating the most excitement, however, were the preparations going on for the third annual fund-raising play written, produced, and acted by ex-felons. The group is called the Miranda Writes Players and this year’s play is titled Trouble. It is a comedy about a very serious subject, Fersing said, covering the writers’ prior criminal lives and their difficulty in re-entering society. The play opens on Sept. 11 and runs through Sept. 13 at the Rose Marine Theater on North Main Street. Showtime is 7 p.m.; tickets are $15, which is tax-deductible.
The idea for these “reality” plays came from ex-offender Cathy Harmon, Fersing said, in the belief that drama was a good way to educate the community, raise funds, and give ex-offenders a way to unleash their creative talents. The Miranda troupe’s motto could just as easily be Smith’s, he said: “We had the right to remain silent, and we chose not to.”