Hope for the Holidays

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Two years ago, Tee was a broken woman. Stymied by her struggles, rejected by employers, embroiled in an extended family of poverty and powerlessness, wrapped up in her own grief, and defined by her criminal past. Then, the pandemic layered on more strife, and she became a near-daily visitor to Project Return, barely hanging on but finding food and water, friendliness and warmth, clothing and caring, within our walls.

We are in the opportunity business, and our optimism is palpable, but I am here to admit to you that I had become short on hopefulness for Tee. She would trudge to our door, and I’m sorry to say that I saw trouble and felt defeat in those moments. Prospective employers considered her unworthy and unappealing, despite our hard sell and our supportive services. She was struggling more than ever. A better future was hard to envision.

People have asked us how the pandemic has affected the individuals served by Project Return, and we can describe the ways in which COVID-19 has imperiled and complicated the lives of people coming out of incarceration, and how they have beaten the odds and built successful new beginnings. But I can also tell you about Tee. What we saw with Tee was nothing short of a miracle. In October, we got a call from a commercial laundry company that had rejected her previously, and they wanted to interview Tee. They called us for her. And not only that, she got hired, and she immediately began excelling on the job.

I saw Tee on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, as she headed home after dark from a long day’s work. She shared proudly with me the total number of pieces (tens of thousands!) she had laundered, and the way her employer had to urge her to knock off for the evening. Tee was energized, proud, and focused on getting back to work the next morning. “I’ve got to make sure there’s enough for the babies and all the people over there for Thanksgiving,” she said, referring to the patients at the hospital where her laundered items would go.

In one regard, this is about companies facing workforce shortages unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and making hires they previously would not consider – and Project Return finding ways to connect our people with those opportunities. But in another regard, it’s about the person beneath the strife, the individual whose humanity and hope are greater than their hardship. It had taken a worldwide disaster for Tee – a worthy woman with a willing spirit – to get her life-changing opportunity.

Project Return is here for Tee, and for all the people whose lives were imperiled long before the pandemic, whose heartache and hardship may exceed our imagination. Emerging at long last from incarceration – having done their time and paid their debt, and returning to a pandemic world – they face nearly insurmountable odds. Hundreds of people started their successful new lives at Project Return this year.

But this holiday season, I’ll be thinking of Tee, and the miracle of hospital patients having soft blankets and crisp bedsheets, owing to the purposeful labor of loving hands – hands that have lived a hard life and done hard time. True, this pandemic turned our world upside down, but Tee’s life is now right side up. And there’s my own small redemption: despite feeling less than hopeful, still hope has prevailed.


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