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Project RETURN is celebrating its 41st year of service to the formerly incarcerated at its annual fundraising event on October 16. Project RETURN has been an integral part of the racial social justice movement for more than four decades, helping men and women make a positive, permanent return to their communities.
Project RETURN considers each successful return of an individual to his or her community a cause for celebration. Thus, each year, the non-profit organization holds one large event—Celebrate the Return—to highlight the uplifting, powerful and moving success stories of Project RETURN clients.
Ray Mendoza is one such story. He attended his first Project RETURN Circle of Support peer support group about two years after returning from 17 years in federal prison. “I had the support of family and friends, but not of anyone who had gone through what I had—the amount of time or being as institutionalized as I was,” Mendoza said. “Trying to transition from a controlled environment to a free world with no controls was a challenge. I was lost for a while and began to think that the only solution was to do something that would send me back to prison, where I felt more comfortable.”
Fortunately, Mendoza met some people who were aware of Project RETURN and its Circles of Support and, in 2018, Mendoza attended his first group. “Circles helped me to navigate everything I was going through and to acclimate to the free world. The experience impacted me so much, I wanted to help others the same way,” he said. He trained up and has been leading a Circle at God Touch Milwaukee every Wednesday evening ever since.
“It brings me a lot of joy to get to know the guys who come to the Circle, how apprehensive they are at first, and then, after 2-3 weeks, how open and willing and ready they are to release what’s on their mind,” Mendoza said, who also works as a Violence Interrupter Supervisor for 414 Life. “The Circle is there to listen in a judgment-free zone.”
During the pandemic, the increased isolation and mental health pressure impacted the formerly incarcerated intensely, and the demand for Circles of Support increased. Project RETURN responded by expanding the program by nearly 50%, making certain a Circle was available every night of the week. During lockdown, all Circles went virtual. Now both in-person and virtual Circles are offered. Mendoza’s Wednesday Circle remains virtual at this time.
“We’ve just trained 14 new Circle Keepers and are planning to continue to expand our Circles offerings to meet our clients’ needs,” said Project RETURN Program coordinator, Amanda Smit. A Women’s Circle of Support and a Family Circle of Support are two new offerings that have debuted recently. Another group will be starting for registrants.
At the October 16 Celebrate the Return gala, in addition to testimonials from individuals who have been directly impacted by incarceration, there are awards given to community leaders who have made an important contribution to social racial justice and prison reform. This year’s award winners are:
- Sister Patricia Rogers, who is being honored with the Gwendolyn Moore Commitment to Restorative Justice
- Emilio De Torre, who is being honored with the Don Bein award
- Shannon Ross, who is being honored with the Elijah O’Neil award
The event will be emceed by Dr. Robert S. Smith, the Harry G. John Professor of History and the Director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching & Outreach at Marquette University.
The 41st Annual Celebrate the Return gala takes place Saturday, October 16, starting at 5:00 p.m. at Marquette University’s Alumni Memorial Union. For more information and to RSVP to attend, visit: https://www.projectreturnmilwaukee.org/celebrate