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Archive for Saturday, June 14, 2003

Center puts focus on helping felons find employment

June 14, 2003

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— Shella Epps fumbled with the mouse to navigate around the Web page that had just appeared on the computer at the Forever Crowned Ministry.

Standing behind her, ministry director Evelyn Washington guided her hand and gently reminded her: "Remember right click, left click."

It was the first time that Epps a 35-year-old woman out on parole after a conviction for possession of a firearm had ever used a personal computer.

"It feels good. It opens up a lot of things to you. ... I'm trying to get to those opportunities," Epps said.

The mother of seven children, Epps is struggling to find a job and stay out of prison in an already down economy in aviation-dependent Wichita.

"When you have a felony, your name is mud," she said. "It is a struggle every day to keep your head above water and keep from going back to jail."

Washington knows all about that struggle she watched her own son go through the same pains after he tried to get his life back together with a criminal record.

The day her then 18-year-old son went to court changed her, even though he is now out of jail and doing well.

"Those big balls of tears raining from his eyes did something for me," she said. "From that day on, I was never the same. I felt I was locked up with him."

Those memories haunted her so much she opened a community center in the midst of the city's poorest neighborhood to offer counseling, mentoring and life skills to anyone who walks in. She teaches ex-offenders how to write a resume and use a computer.

"It must have been something the Lord wanted to happen I never had a desire to help people before," Washington said.

Her husband, Johnnie, is a tour bus driver. With their personal money and the help of volunteers they opened the center in 2001. More than 276 people have since come here for help.

Last month the center staged its grand opening in a newly remodeled church building. A grant from Microsoft outfitted the center with computers and hardware.

Volunteers and convicts serving community service sentences help staff it. Donations of clothes and shoes fill neatly hung racks in the basement.

Baron Dawson, who is on probation on a domestic violence conviction, went to the center to do community service. While there, the 34-year-old man talks about religion with Washington.

"She is my angel," he said.

Dawson said he wished the center had been around the first time he was on probation.

"It is great," he said. "I think in the long run it will help a lot of people."

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