By this fall, Prince George’s County inmates looking for a second chance might have a new avenue to spread their wings.
A Largo-based church has created a nonprofit that aims to convert convicts into entrepreneurs after they are released from incarceration.
Teach ’em to Fish, a 501(c)(3) created in early June by The Gateway to Wholeness Church Ministries, a nondenominational Christian church, is the new business incubator ministry that is unlike any other, said organization founder the Rev. Clarence Crawford of Largo. He said he and other volunteer church members plan to work with inmates for a roughly 30-month process on developing business skills, from preparing to leave the department of corrections to finding a job, and eventually owning and operating their own enterprise.
Once inmates are released from prison, the organization plans on training them to save money, retain a job, build their skills and vision, and eventually own a business by the end of the process.
“Our goal is a simple one. The Lord has given us a charge to help the people that nobody else wants,” Crawford said. “We believe he’s instructing us to go to the ones that no one else wants and demonstrate his love by helping them get their lives together.”
Crawford, pastor of The Gateway to Wholeness Church Ministries, a small church of about 10 members that formed in 1999, said the nonprofit still is in talks with the county’s department of corrections to formalize a partnership and allow Teach ’em to Fish staff to use correction facilities for the first part of the four-step program.
Stephan Simmons, the Department of Corrections’ division chief for program services, said he’s excited to partner with Teach ’em to Fish, and said any time he works with a community organization, it benefits the corrections department, because of the number of vocational classes and programs they can offer to inmates. He added that Teach ’em to Fish likely will start out working with the corrections department’s existing barber class.
“Guys figure when they get locked up, that’s [the] end of their efforts,” Simmons said. “But the truth is, everybody gets out and since everybody gets out, they have to have an opportunity and we want them to have something to give focus to and have a direction.”
After completing an in-prison “boot camp,” the first step to serve as an orientation to building business skills and self-esteem, participants will move on to step two, or the “Job Lab” step. That step focuses on developing positive work habits, opening bank and savings accounts, and demonstrating a “real commitment to make a change,” Crawford said.
The third step involves former inmates actually putting their acquired funds and skills together to discover what field they want to pursue and begin creating their own business, followed by the fourth step of actually running their newly formed business.
Crawford said the church currently has a program with the department of corrections in which mentors speak to county inmates on a regular basis about understanding who they are as individuals and recognizing that they will have options after incarceration. He said the same church members who are involved with that program will help lead the new business incubator, in addition to area experts in the field.
Crawford said the program will start with a group of nine individuals in the fall and gradually grow as the program becomes established.
He said for the first several years, the organization will have a more narrow focus of career paths ex-offenders can seek that are easier to manage and require little overhead costs, such as owning a barbershop, car detailing service, landscaping company or commercial office cleaning business, or computer-related occupations, such as Web design.
Leittia Vaughn of Forest Heights, the nonprofit’s treasurer and a church member, said the church has been meeting regularly to develop a structure for those released from prison in terms of classes and training sessions, which will be run out of the Gateway to Wholeness Church on Mercantile Lane in Largo.
“We’re transforming lives and launching businesses. There are lots of people out there who need to be served,” she said.
The nonprofit also is looking to partner with Bowie State University’s business school, as Crawford is in talks with the school’s dean to have graduate students intern for the incubator as coaches and teachers, Crawford said.
Anthony Nelson, the school’s dean, said his students would benefit from partnering with Teach ’em to Fish by helping participants with their start-ups and getting them on their feet.
“We’re always excited when individuals or organizations come to us and say, ‘We need your students, we have employment opportunities for your students and they have a chance to utilize their skills to make a difference,’” Nelson said.
Apart from negotiating terms with the department of corrections and Bowie State, Crawford said Teach ’em to Fish is in the process of seeking volunteer coaches and aides to help teach skills to ex-offenders and get them prepared to own their own businesses.
Crawford said he is looking for businesses that are open to taking in ex-offenders for work and looking for potential sponsors who will donate to help fund the incubator.
He said with the help of sponsorships, volunteer coaches and experts to teach necessary skills to create stable jobs, Teach ’em to Fish will make a difference in ex-offenders’ lives and their families.
“Nobody gets where they are without somebody’s help,” Crawford said. “If we can make a difference in just one person at a time, imagine how it changes lives.”