Transition Center Gives Polk Men a Second Chance by Robin Williams Adams

Posted: May 3, 2011 in News and politics
By Robin Williams Adams

Published: Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 12:01 a.m.

LEE SPELL,  program director, talks with Jordan Flores at the Hope Now Transition Center. Spell provides counseling.

BARTOW | Leaning on a fence at the pasture and barn where Polk County keeps seized or abandoned horses, Matthew Siegel reflects on how different his life would be without the Hope Now Transition Center.

Arrested for a parole violation, he faced the prospect of being returned to prison when a judge offered him a last-chance opportunity to go to the rehabilitation program that opened last year in the former Polk County Sheriff’s Office work camp.

Hope Now began with a focus on men who complete a substance-abuse program in jail and need a way to transition into society. That quickly expanded to include men like Siegel for whom the program is part of a legal sentence, although other men with addiction problems may be considered after a comprehensive review.

It could, in the future, have a program for women as well.

Earlier this month, the advisory Citizens Healthcare Oversight Committee endorsed spending up to $360,000 over the next six months to help cover the cost of low-income county residents with addictions who qualify for the program. The Polk County Commission will need to approve that contract.

“I wasn’t doing well on the streets,” said Siegel, 41. “My alcoholism was a part of it. I’d work day to day.”

When he got out of prison years ago, he said, he didn’t know how to put gas in his car.

Now he works daily looking after the animals, helping tend a garden run by Hope Now and other jobs for which Justin Fennell, executive director of Hope Now, arranges contracts.

Cabbages, carrots, turnips, watermelons and green beans are some of the crops grown, producing products the center can sell or barter as partial payment for meals the PCSO jail provides Hope Now residents.

Work is an essential part of Hope Now’s program. It lets the residents earn income to pay for their treatment there and to save toward their graduation into independent living. The program has a $600 monthly tuition.

“Men need to work,” ­Fennell said. “When they get back to work, they get a lot more compliant.”

They also feel better about themselves, he said, and are able to reconnect more easily with family, friends, spouses and girlfriends from whom they might have become estranged.

The nonprofit program is faith-based, with devotional sessions and involvement with churches. Members of the program will be doing a service, including music and sermon, Sunday at Turning Point Worship Center in Bartow.

“We don’t require it of the individual, but we provide it,” Fennell said of the program’s religious aspects. “We don’t make anybody believe. We expose them to what we believe to be the truth.”


For C. J. Blackmon, 19, the decision to come to Hope Now was a no-brainer.

It was either the transition center in Bartow or a year and a day in prison. He was arrested on a charge of grand theft and false verification to a pawn shop, he said.

“If not for them, I wouldn’t be working right now,” he said. “I wouldn’t have no kind of income. And I’ve got two kids out there I’m trying to get back to.”

His criminal violation is linked to his use of methamphetamine. He’s now been clean for seven months, he said, of which almost five months has been spent at Hope Now. He goes to the meth-free program of Leland Family Ministries, he said, and has been to a Celebrate Recovery program at Christ Community Church in Winter Haven.

“I’ve grown closer to God since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve never really been a Christian before.”

Through the transition center, he’s able to keep working in landscaping, although his work now is for the county instead of private customers. Hope Now has contracts with Polk County to provide workers.

Charles “Quick” Canady, 46, said he’s been kick boxing since he was 14 and has taught it to others. But he made “some bad choices before in the past,” he said, and was in state prison for five years.

“We need programs like this because prison doesn’t help you get back into the community,” the Lake Wales native said. “It works if you want to work with it.”

Residents typically are in the program for 12 months, although some may spend the last part of it living independently. Programs are tailored to individual situations, within the confines of limits set if Hope Now is part of a legal sentence.

Substance-abuse education and relapse-prevention training are included in the program.


Sheriff Grady Judd is supportive of Hope Now. He suggested the county provide his unused work camp to the program for a nominal fee. The work camp, boot camp and jail farm all were eliminated from his budget as a result of cutbacks during the past three years that eliminated 122 PCSO positions, he said.

“This is the perfect public-private partnership,” Judd said. “We will see people’s lives changed, and we’ll see people not return to the criminal justice system because of their efforts.”

Letting the residents know staff members care about them is crucial to the program’s success, Fennell said, because many “have never had anyone express consistent care except maybe their mothers.”

Hope Now is a division of North American Youth Foundation Services, a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization of which Fennell is president. He is a former associate pastor of Victory Church and a former official at Southeastern University in Lakeland, as well as a current professional comedian.

Ed White, founder of Hope Now, is a graduate of Southeastern University and was a longtime pastor.

“We love them,” Fennell said of the residents, some of whom call him by his first name. “We have an agape-type love.”

Work, substance-abuse education and exposure to religion aren’t all Hope Now needs to offer, Fennell said. Counseling is an important component, some of which is provided by the program director, Lee Spell, licensed clinical Christian counselor and former detention counselor with PCSO.

Also needed are training in basic skills, computer skills, personal hygiene, keeping journals of their feelings and preparing for work. Fennell said he plans to hire certified instructors to teach skills in electric, plumbing and carpentry with the goal of making its residents employable. Without being able to get jobs, their success is threatened.

“I need Polk County to fall in love with our men, to say ‘I could employ two or three at our place,'” Fennell said.

[ Robin Williams Adams can be reached at or 863-802-7558. Read her blog at Follow on Twitter at ledgerROBIN. ]


Copyright © 2011 — All rights reserved. Restricted use only.

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