Published 12:10 am Saturday, September 10, 2022, By Brooke Robichaux

LAPLACE — For too many years, Sheriff Mike Tregre watched as people released from the local jail would walk to Airline Highway with no high school diploma or GED, no financial skills and no life skills.

“Just putting people in jail and throwing away the key never did work and does not keep our parish or communities or families safe. The key to making us safer is education,” Tregre said.

This week, the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office celebrated the 18th graduating class of its Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program for inmates at the Sherman Walker Correctional Facility in LaPlace. The program included three months of intensive work readiness and life skills training designed to give inmates the tools they will need to cope with a variety of challenges upon re-entering society.

The 14 new graduates are on a path to rebuild their lives. Since the program began in St. John Parish seven years ago, 204 inmates have participated in the program and 177 have graduated. Only six of the graduates have been re-arrested.

“The most satisfying number is seeing people not returning to jail,” Tregre said. “The program is working and is a major tool in keeping our parish safe.”

Also celebrating the 14 Opportunity Now graduates were Program Instructor Carolyn Kennedy, Adult Services Manager Kimya Babers, Director of Adult Services Alayna Carter, Director of Operations Tyson Brown, and XP Synergy Administrative Assistant Pastor James Fletcher.

Carter said Opportunity Now differs from other re-entry programs because the work does not stop in the classroom.

“While they are incarcerated, we are providing them with general life skills and work readiness skills. As soon as they get out, they continue to work with us while we find them job placement,” Carter said, “We link with additional resources if they need housing, transportation or things of that nature. Our main focus is getting them employed within two months of release.”

According to Carter, the program came to St. John Parish after team leader Joe Lewis and Sheriff Tregre attended church together and spoke about providing re-entry services locally.

“It’s about making sure these guys become productive citizens so that they can go back into society and be a better man, a better father, a better son, a better taxpaying citizen, and a hard worker. They have the skills. We just have to go in and re-introduce them,” Carter said.

As program instructor, Kennedy introduced inmates to a variety of topics related to personal development, money management and life skills. Participants also learned about health-related topics including sexually transmitted diseases and how to cope with drug or alcohol addiction.

Coursework included tools needed to obtain employment after incarceration, such building resumes, dressing for success, and how to conduct oneself in an interview.

Kennedy has seen former participants in the program successfully obtain jobs, purchase homes and start their own businesses.
“We focus on resources in the community to get what they need while they are in the process of getting a job — food stamps, how to obtain a copy of your birth certificate and Social Security card,” Kennedy said. “We also have a representative from the TWIC office talk about the process of getting a card and what to do if you get denied. A probation officer came to talk about what will be expected of them.”

Melvin Onidas, one of Opportunity Now’s newest graduates, appreciated learning anger management skills.

“I learned that when it comes to anger, life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it. I’ve learned to control my anger by listening to my anger cues. If my stomach starts to get tight and my voice starts to crack, that means I’m about to go to a level that I don’t need to go to,” Onidas said.

Onidas also learned about the ripple effect of crime and how it affects not only the victim, but also local schools, politics and cost of living in local neighborhoods.

After he is released from jail, Onidas plans to obtain his CDL and become a truck driver.

“I’ve tried everything else; now it’s time to change,” Onidas said. “I’m trying to be a better father. The people who are part of this program are going to help me try to reach my top potential, and we will go from there. Every day above ground is a blessed day. I have the opportunity to make today better than yesterday.”