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Monday, August 8, 2011

Williamsburg Walk the Talk Lends a Helping Hand for Those Starting Over

Current WWTT Mentors (left to right): Rachel Koob Miller, Patty Kipps, John Greenman, Kim Sanchez, Jim Ramage  (back row), Oryan Jones, David Benedict. Not pictured: Rev. Warren, Elinor Warren, Jan Puffenberger, JoAnn Mertins.
Rev. Harry Warren is chair over a mentoring program that helps ex-offenders transitioning back into society when they are released from the Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg, Va. As there is no public bus service on that section of Route 143, a person without friends or family to provide a ride would have to make a long trek of three miles to the nearest bus stop. For about five years, volunteers have been providing transportation to nonviolent ex-offenders. Those without a support network may need a lot more than transportation, and the volunteers of Williamsburg Walk the Talk (WWTT) based in Virginia are there to assist. WWTT volunteers drive the parole to local social services department where they can receive food stamps and to the United Way “Helpline” office, which is a referral to agencies that can help find housing, medical care, clothing, and transportation.

Rev. Warren said that the mentors meet with the soon to be released offenders two or three times in prison. Upon release, they have a hands on approach to help meet the personal needs of the ex-offenders. He personally will not take on too large of case load at one time because he wants to assure that he gives the needed attention to people who may need help signing up for social security, qualifying for disability, or placement in a rehabilitation center for addicts. While it is required to meet two or three times prior to release, Rev. Warren allows the ex-offenders to be accountable for their continued success and “will not chase them down” if they do not continue to seek mentoring.

The program has a “hands up” philosophy that has had some positive results. David Benedict who is an instrumental leader in the program reports that a female ex-offender who had a substance abuse problem was placed in a half-way house to help her not to relapse into her drinking problems. He also shares the story of a male ex-offender who was mentored for a two-year period and who received contact by mail during the final time frame of incarceration at the Harrisonburg Diversion Center in northern Virginia. This gentleman is now self-sufficient and back to his previous job in Williamsburg.

Rev. Warren credits his background in political science with helping him to work with the system. He has a diplomatic way of working with Corrections Officers. He counsels ex-offenders not to miss a meeting with a Parole Officer if at all possible. If they must miss, he stresses the importance of calling rather than being a no show. Rev. Warren will introduce himself to the Parole Officer of one of his mentees as he feels rapport is vital to success.

While Rev. Warren likes the Williamsburg, Va. area, he has strong ties to New York City where he lived for many years. His work in corrections spans five decades. Seeking justice and fair treatment for inmates, he has made his mark on the system. After interviewing a man who had been imprisoned for six months, he learned that the young man had not been before a judge and had not seen a lawyer at any point of his incarceration. There were no formal charges filed and the man was released that same afternoon because of his prompt intervention.

Rev. Warren believes that as a minister you need to be willing to take a stance. Through the years, he has worked with people of diverse political background on moral issues. He takes the scripture found in Matthew 10:6, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as dove,” quite literally. He is at ease with people of diverse backgrounds, which is needed as he is a Caucasian minister serving a congregation that is predominantly a minority. When the occasion calls for it, he can be downright bold. He insisted on going in a padded cell with a violent offender stating that he would be safe with the guard outside the door. The meeting with the man in the cell went well, and he allowed him to pray with him.

On another occasion, Rev. Warren demanded hand cuffs and leg irons be removed from the inmates he was meeting with as the security was outside the door. What they did when he was gone was their business but he would not stand for a person not being treated with dignity in his presence.

An increased level of awareness of the extra difficulties facing women being released from prison is needed according to Rev. Warren. If they have children or are a minority, it becomes that much harder. He is concerned for the plight of women in different walks of life. Just talking to him briefly on the phone, I could tell that he admired his wife who he said could read people and knew him better than he knew himself. He and his wife Eleanor recently celebrated 51 years of marriage.

Treating people with dignity is something that was instilled in Rev. Warren by his mother at a young age. There was a woman who lived near the George Washington Bridge who was Jewish and disadvantaged. His mother helped this woman out as she was going to visit relatives. She told him to always treat people decently and with love even if they were disadvantaged.

This Year's WWTT Mentor's Figures:
  • Jail visits 182;
  • Rides on release 111;
  • Miles driven 6517; and
  • Total hours 619.
After speaking with a minister of a congregation where an ex-offender would be attending, Rev Warren was relieved that the person would be accepted into the congregation. There is an attitude by some ministers that “we are glad they are saved” but we do not want them worshiping with us according to Rev. Warren. He believes that Churches need to welcome the wounded and broken.

More mentors for ex-offenders are needed. There is a great demand at this time for women mentors and also a need for male mentors. Those interested in learning more may contact Rev. Warren at 757-221-0012 or David Benedict at 757-258-5893. Those wanting to donate to a fund for the ex-offenders may contact Williamsburg Baptist Church at 227 Richmond Rd. Williamsburg, Va 23185 or call 757-229-1217. Please make the checks payable to Wiliamsburg Baptist Church and write "Williamsburg Walk the Talk" in the info line at the bottom left on the check. Local people can also assist by having drives for clothing requests, hygiene kits, and phone and bus cards.

Being an example and providing assistance may help a person change for the better. I have exchanged emails with David Benedict, and Jim Ramage, and spoken on the phone with Rev. Warren. In our exchanges, I have felt their warmth and their hope. I think the philosophy that drives Rev. Warren’s perseverance can be summed up in the following encounter. When a woman scornfully asked how Rev. Warren could possibly meet with a convicted murderer to pray with him prior to his execution, he spoke of the people Jesus associated with in the Bible who were in many cases the derelicts of society. If Jesus had the love for everybody, he questioned how he could dare withhold his fellowship to anyone.
– population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan
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  1. A few weeks ago Rev. Harry Warren was in a car accident. The last word that I received on his recovery was that he was recuperating well. Our prayers are with Rev. Warren. With love, Barb Bohan

  2. WWTT mentors are true examples of others carrying it forward and using their lives to serve the world. Thanks for all you do: Rev. Warren, Elinor, Rachel, Patty, John, Kim, Jim, Oryan, David, Jan and JoAnn. You all are truly an inspiration!

  3. What an amazing work you folks do. Sounds like you make a tangible difference and give people with a far better chance of returning to everyday life.

    As someone who went off a different set of rails and had to find a way back, I can assure you that help goes a long, long way when we are trying to change our lives significantly.



    PS will believe the best for Rev Warren's recovery from accident.

  4. One Direction Forward, thank for sharing in such a personal way what an organization that assists ex-offenders may mean to those who receive a helping hand. We appreciate your thinking good thoughts about Rev. Warren during his time of recovery.
    --Barb Bohan