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Dismas House celebrates 30th anniversary

| Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Dismas House in South Bend has assisted over 1,000 ex-criminal offenders since 1986, with 101 local college volunteers sharing in their journeys along the way. Dismas House will celebrate its 30th anniversary at a benefit dinner April 13, one of several other anniversary celebrations throughout the year.

“Our mission is to facilitate the reconciliation of former prisoners to society and society to former prisoners through the development of a supportive community,” Maria Kaczmarek, Executive Director of South Bend’s Dismas House, said in an email. “Dismas House is a unique place where college students, former prisoners and volunteers come together to create community.”

According to Kaczmarek, South Bend’s location is part of a larger nationwide Dismas House nonprofit, which began in 1974.

“It is a unique program because former offenders share the house with area college students,” Kaczmarek said, “[It] recognizes that the cycle of crime can be reduced when men and women who have been incarcerated have assistance readjusting to society. To that end, Dismas House provides room and board, case management, bus passes, employment services, life skills counseling, mentoring and programs to help former offenders make a successful transition back into the community.

“Returning prisoners need [an] adjustment period when they return home. If they do not receive support, they are high risks to re-offend. They need help with securing medical and dental care. Many need mental health services … and drug and alcohol treatment. Finding and maintaining employment is paramount. Dismas helps with all of these needs.”

Kaczmarek said Dismas House also advocates on social justice issues on behalf of ex-offenders.

“We hope Indiana will opt out of the federal law that prohibits individuals convicted of a drug offense from receiving [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits] for life,” she said, “People who have committed far worse crimes, such as rape, can receive SNAP [benefits]. We feel it is morally wrong to deny a person the basic human need of food. Other states have opted out of the federal law that bars those with drug convictions to receive SNAP [benefits]. Also, we would like to see [the] ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ box removed job applications. This would allow the person to be interviewed and given the opportunity to explain his or her criminal history and to their share skills and talents as they relate to the job.”

Kaczmarek said South Bend’s Dismas House is a “century old Victorian house — it is not a facility, it is a home.” It currently houses 12 residents, all of whom commit to participating in their clinic-specific reentry plan for between 90 days and two years. Weekdays, residents attend school or work at jobs. Monday through Thursday, residents gather to eat dinner together “as a family.” The evening meal is prepared by volunteers who dine alongside residents.

“[And] like all families, we watch TV, play games, go to the movies, visit with family and friends and have fun,” Kaczmarek said.

In addition to providing an in-home family, Dismas House incorporates local college students to add to a rehabilitative community.

“We welcome all college students, but Notre Dame students were the first to become involved as residents and volunteer cook(s),” Kaczmarek said. “For 29 years, the men of Keenan Hall have been preparing dinner and eating with the residents every Monday night during the school year. … Also Notre Dame’s Circle K students provide tutoring on Tuesday evenings to residents. Student residency has a major impact on the house. Students are non-judgmental and open-minded. They bring laughter and fun to the house.

“ … Because of the presence of students many of our former offenders gain a newfound respect for education, and they decide to enroll in higher education.”

Student volunteers gain something from the work with the Dismas House residents, too, said one volunteer.

“Dinner always begins with a prayer led by one of the residents, followed by each person at dinner stating their name so that guests feel welcome before the meal is served,” T.J. Groden, a junior in Keenan Hall and Dismas House volunteer, said. “Sharing the meal with the residents is as, if not more, important than preparing it. The conversations I’ve had over dinner at Dismas House have significantly changed my views on our country’s prison system.

“Dismas is extremely important because it gives released inmates the second chance that they deserve. The house is much more than a place to live — it is a community that rehabilitates former inmates through its programming. Dismas breaks the cycle that traps many released inmates and pushes them back into incarceration.”

Francisco Yang, a sophomore in Keenan Hall and another Dismas House volunteer, said he considers the dinner discussion with the residents as the most important part of Monday dinners at Dismas House.

“Prior to Dismas House, I had no prior interaction with anyone who had formerly been incarcerated,” Yang said. “This year I learned that people like the residents at Dismas have difficulty adjusting back into normal life because of the stigma associated with incarceration. People tend to fear what they do not understand, and unfortunately members of society who have been released from prison fall under this category of people who experience hardship and misunderstanding.

“Dismas residents help our volunteers become more open minded and better informed about the circumstances that lead up to incarceration and the struggles that lead many people who are released to become re-incarcerated very soon after. Discussions of social justice issues are crucial because of the lack of available resources for these members to help them cope with their circumstances. … The start to resolving social injustice begins with informing the public because ignorance contributes to a culture of misunderstanding, and Dismas does its part to make a difference.”

Kaczmarek also quoted a Dismas House graduate, “Greg C.,” in her email:

“It has been 12 years since I left Dismas House, and I haven’t been in any trouble. I finished my apprenticeship and received my Associates Degree from Ivy Tech. Until then I always felt that society looked at me like an outcast. Dismas showed me this wasn’t true and that everyone deserves a second chance. The way Dismas and the South Bend community accepted me will always hold strong in my heart, and I will never forget it. I thank the Dismas staff, students and volunteers and the program for changing my life.”

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About Andrea Vale

Andrea Vale is a freshman at Notre Dame who has previously written for both the Sun Chronicle and the Huffington Post. She plans to major in English with a Creative Writing concentration and a minor in Journalism.

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