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Repair and restoration

Ministry mentors former female inmates

By John W. Kennedy

Growing up in a Pentecostal home in Detroit with one older and six younger sisters, LaClaire Green Bouknight spent a lot of time reading. The family didn’t own a television set.

Her parents stressed the importance of learning. Her father, Havious Green, taught special education. Her mother, Julia, earned a college degree in childhood education after raising her children.

Havious and Julia Green continue to be good role models in their 60th year of marriage. At 85, Havious pastors a Pentecostal church in Detroit. All the parental instructing and nurturing paid off: Their eight girls all earned doctoral degrees.

In her early 20s, LaClaire decided she wanted to be a physician. She and husband Reynard met at Michigan State University in East Lansing and married in 1971. LaClaire came in contact with the Chi Alpha campus ministry as a first-year student at Michigan State and has been attending First Assembly of God of Greater Lansing in East Lansing since 1966.

After obtaining her medical degree, LaClaire began providing medical care for adolescents in state correctional facilities. That sparked years of involvement in jail ministry for LaClaire and Reynard, who is an associate professor of medicine at Michigan State.

But the volunteer ministry efforts also proved frustrating.

“It became clear that we were seeing the same women again and again,” says LaClaire, 58. “Even though they were saved, they tended to fall away because they returned to the same environment. We didn’t see much fruit.”

In 2003, LaClaire decided to do something about it. She started Eaglevision Ministries, a faith-based social services organization that has helped more than 120 women.

Forty times a year, staff and volunteers from Eaglevision, based in the Lansing suburb of Okemos, go to the Ingham County Jail. While half the women in the program have first contact with Eaglevision while behind bars, Scripture-based discipleship after the women are released makes the biggest difference in turning lives around.

During a three-month to one-year period, the ministry provides basic instruction in areas such as handling finances and budgeting, talking on the phone properly, dealing with stress, and good grooming practices. But the most important resource is job training. Without it, many former offenders stumble in adjusting to life on the outside. The job training re-entry program provides requisite skills needed to compete in the marketplace.

The Labor Department awarded the ministry a $96,000 faith-based workforce development grant. Funds are used to help women put together a résumé, search for the most appropriate type of employment, and learn to prepare for a job interview.

“People told us we would never get the money, that we would never be successful,” Bouknight says. “We were green, we didn’t know. We just believed the Lord.”

Eaglevision promised that half the women enrolled would be placed in jobs. The ministry exceeded employment goals by 20 percent and enrollment goals by 30 percent. Not only that, Eaglevision’s statistics fared better than any other organization in the country on the re-entry jobs grant.

Bouknight has learned how churches using the faith-based component can work through the government grant process without compromising beliefs. Eaglevision received $190,000 in a pair of Department of Labor grants for dislocated workers and displaced homemakers.

Government officials warmed to Eaglevision upon realizing its programs not only save money but change lives.

“When women turn their lives around they get their kids back from foster care, find employment and pay taxes,” Bouknight says. “The government has found that faith-based organizations can do things much cheaper and better than other organizations.”

ROAD TO RECOVERY

A weekly ex-offenders support group includes scriptural teachings. “For some of these women it’s their first look at the Bible,” says Bouknight, who also is an ordained Assemblies of God minister.

The transformation from inmate to productive member of society isn’t a quick process.

“There are many strongholds in the lives of these women that impede their ability to sustain successful lifestyles,” Bouknight says. “Common strongholds are low self-esteem, drugs and alcohol, undiagnosed psychological or psychiatric disorders, past failures, abusive relationships and unhealthy sexual relationships.”

Eaglevision has enabled Shelly Vendeville to turn her life around. Because of drug addiction, Vendeville lost custody of her three oldest daughters, now ages 4, 5 and 10.

“I didn’t want to live when I lost those girls,” Vendeville recalls. “I was so trapped in sin I couldn’t stop using drugs when I was pregnant for the third time.” Vendeville had started smoking marijuana at age 15. That escalated into drinking alcohol, snorting cocaine and shooting heroin.

Eaglevision enabled Vendeville to escape the pattern after she committed her life to Jesus in response to the organization’s jail ministry efforts. She has regained custody of her 2-year-old healthy twin girls, Hope and Faith.

“I would have felt defeated if I had returned to the same environment as before when I got out of jail,” says Vendeville, who notes that several family members, including the father of the twins, are incarcerated because of drugs. “This women’s program is a godly environment.”

Less than a year after serving a nine-month jail sentence, Vendeville has a full-time job as an apartment manager.

Even though she has graduated from the program, Vendeville still attends the weekly support group in an effort to stay accountable as well as to encourage others.

“The prayers of the women in Eaglevision saw me through some of the darkest moments,” Vendeville says. “It’s about loving each other, sharing God’s Word with each other and knowing you’re not alone. Eaglevision gives so much hope to women who don’t think anyone else cares.”

Vendeville, 30, laments that she waited so long to surrender her life to Jesus. “I lost three kids because I couldn’t get it together,” she says. “But God has given me a second chance. I have a family through Eaglevision.”

Juanita Mitchell spent time locked up after being convicted of fraud. The single mother stole office funds in a desperate effort to buy things she couldn’t afford for her daughter, now 13. While incarcerated, Mitchell did not at first want help from Eaglevision or any other ministry. But after she became a Christian, Mitchell decided to attend a meeting.

“I felt so comfortable,” says Mitchell, 34. “They were so supportive, nurturing and nonjudgmental. Each person receives individualized attention.”

Mitchell began working at Eaglevision in June as an administrative assistant, even though she remained under house arrest until October.

“God has changed my purpose and my passion,” Mitchell says.

Linda M. Williams had no support system upon her release from prison. After serving a 13-year term for murdering her father, Williams spent two months wandering the streets. She had been locked up since age 19 and had no idea how to find a place to live or to obtain a job. She contemplated committing another crime in order to return to prison, a place where she felt secure and free from physical and sexual abuse that had tormented her during childhood.

Then she received a referral to Eaglevision. People at the ministry have helped her learn how to use a computer, how to write a job cover letter, and helped her gather enough money to put down a security deposit for an apartment.

“When I first walked into Eaglevision I was totally lost,” Williams says. “I was helpless, homeless and hopeless. Eaglevision gave me reason to live instead of giving up because of all the obstacles.”

Williams recently has been promoted at her clothing-manufacturing job, but most importantly she has made Jesus her Savior and is attending First Assembly of God of Greater Lansing. She says the nonjudgmental attitude has helped her feel accepted.

“My whole life I’ve been rejected by my family and society,” Williams says. “It’s hard for me to trust people, but Eaglevision is helping me change on the inside.”

Curt Dalaba, pastor of First Assembly, welcomes women enrolled in the Eaglevision program when they decide to attend the church.

“LaClaire is an incredible visionary and a multitasker with great energy,” Dalaba says. “It’s not a surprise to me that God has used her unique abilities for this type of ministry. She brings a level of expertise as a physician that enhances her credibility in the community as well as in obtaining financial assistance as a faith-based organization.”

HEADED FOR THE FUTURE

Bouknight, a mother of three and grandmother to two, still practices medicine a bit and does some itinerate preaching. She also conducts individual counseling for alcohol and drug abuse as well as anger management. Reynard also has patients of his own. He is on the board of Eaglevision and First Assembly of Greater Lansing.

But mostly Bouknight is taking a holistic approach in helping women who don’t have a long-term reliance upon the Lord.

“When we first married we never borrowed one penny, not even for medical school,” Bouknight says. “God provided for us just as He did with the loaves and the fishes.”

Bouknight’s next goal is to obtain government funding to help provide transitional housing for former offenders. “That would allow the women to live in surroundings free of drugs, alcohol and other self-defeating behaviors,” Bouknight says. “Twenty-five percent of women who come to Eaglevision are homeless.”


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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