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Project RETURN is celebrating its 42nd year of service to the formerly incarcerated at its annual fundraising gala on October 8. 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.
This year’s event, themed “Shelter from the Storm”, will feature a variety of guests and speakers, all speaking under the “umbrella” of the obstacles formerly incarcerated individuals face when they return to their communities.
One such testimonial will be given by Clem Richardson who has worked with Project Return for over 19 years and currently is a part-time Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) counselor for the organization. After being hired as a counselor with Project RETURN in early 2003, Richardson went on to mentor countless incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals. He eventually became involved in 13 non-profit organizations, some of which he started and some that he is still involved with today.
“‘The only way you can keep it is to give it away.’ That’s my motto,” Richardson said. “That means: lead by example, be able to serve others, be able to treat others how they want to be treated and meet them where they’re at. The only time you look down at another person should be to help him back up.”
Richardson currently serves as CEO and founder of MANNA Behavioral Services, a non-profit he started which aims to “provide early prevention and education to underserved youth.” He is also currently pursuing a PhD in Education and Counseling Supervision. Richardson hopes this will make him better able to help even more people “in through the door” of Project Return and improve the greater Milwaukee community. For his longtime work in the re-entry community, Richardson will also be receiving Project RETURN’s Don Bein Award on October 8.
Dante Martin is a facilitator with Project RETURN and he, too, will be giving a testimonial at the annual event. After coming home from incarceration, Martin became involved with Project RETURN when a friend recommended it to him. “Project RETURN has been amazing with helping me get grounded and opening up my mind to seeing things from a different perspective,” Martin said.
Martin currently leads two “Circles of Support” groups at Project RETURN, one for men who have been formerly incarcerated, and one for family members of those who are incarcerated. “When I came home, I didn’t have that support system that I had before,” Martin said. “I want to make sure that people have a solid family foundation when they get back.”
In addition to his work with Project RETURN, Martin is a violence interrupter with 414 Life, where his job is to conduct outreach and talk with community members about how to reduce violence in the Milwaukee community, as well as provide people with the support they may need.
Martin was also involved in the creation of “Coalition for Justice,” an organization founded in the aftermath of the killing of Dontre Hamilton. Despite being so actively involved around Milwaukee, Martin said “it was new being in a leadership role. I’ve always been a leader, but never taken the role in terms of fighting for justice.”
For his testimonial on Oct. 8th, Martin said the main message he wants to get across is how much Project RETURN can help those in need. “For people coming home from incarceration who might be unaware that Project Return even exists, I want you to know that if you need anything, they will help you,” Martin said. “Even if they can’t, they will redirect you to people who can. There is always help out there.”
The Elijah O’Neal Award is another recognition given annually at the fundraiser. This award is given to a Project RETURN client who has demonstrated significant growth and shown others that change is possible. The award this year will go posthumously to Lee Varner, who was actively involved in helping others through Project RETURN for the three years after his release in 2018 and prior to this death last year.
In addition to testimonials and awards, there will be a silent auction, a live music performance and other presentations.
The 42nd Annual “Celebrate the Return” gala takes place on Saturday, October 8, starting at 5 p.m. at Marquette University’s Alumni Memorial Union. For more information and to RSVP to attend, visit: https://www.projectreturnmilwaukee.org/celebrate.