"You've changed 16 lives."
That's what the 16 inmates from the Fabian Dale Dominguez State Jail, who graduated from the San Antonio Food Bank's Texas Second Chance Warehouse Program Thursday, wrote on Johanna Tesch's birthday card a few days ago. Tesch served as their instructor for six months and trained the men on warehouse and inventory skills, giving them the opportunity to become certified in the operation and use of warehouse machinery.
"They had someone hand draw me a card from the jail and it moved me to tears what they wrote inside," said Tesch, who spent 15 years in logistics and served as a drill instructor in the military before getting involved with the Food Bank. "How many of us can do that in a lifetime? We're lucky if we get to change one life."
Since 2012, The Windham School District (WSD), a non-geographical school district that provides education services on jail campuses, has partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to send around 20 inmates to the warehouse program three times a year, said Vocational Counselor Gary Griffin, who has been a prison educator and counselor for 21 years.
"The program is 100 hours long, and we (send) trustees in the J1 program, which have to be approved by the warden," Griffin said. "(Those selected) are escorted by security all the time, but they are authorized to leave (the facility). We're real proud of the partnership. It's good for our offenders to give back and it's a life changing experience."
The Rivard Report asked Griffin about recidivism rates concerning program participants. Although Griffin didn't have specific data at hand, he said the results have been positive.
"I know that they come back glowing and this is really important," he said. "They realize that once you give back, once you serve people, it's really hard to go back to where you were before. Some of these guys will go to the culinary program in the Food Bank from here, and even after we're done with them in the school house, the TDCJ will still bring them out to work and serve the Food Bank."
Officer Villarreal, who is in charge of keeping an eye on the inmates/students while they are outside the facility, said that for the last three-and-a-half years that he has been working in the program, he does not recall seeing any of the graduating participants in the program return to the system.
"I've seen it. Programs like these do help them," Villarreal said. "They rarely come back. Although it's challenging for some to find jobs once they leave the system, there are a lot of companies that work with those who have been committed in the past. There are a lot of second chance programs."
Griffin and Tesch both said their jobs are "a special calling."
"It's truly a labor of love," Tesch said. "These guys are humans, and they have dreams and aspirations. In the class, even if it's just for a moment, they can forget where they're at and we can joke and laugh – it's a no judgement zone. "
The Food Bank celebrated the graduates and their families at its main campus on 5200 Enrique M. Barrera Pkwy Tuesday by providing a special meal in their honor, gifting them with a diploma, and bringing special guest speakers to share life changing testimonies. The Food Bank also celebrated two non-offender graduates from their 18-week culinary training program, where students are trained on how to prepare meals in Food Bank kitchens.
SA Food Bank Chief Development Officer Michael Guerra led the event with a welcome and introduced most of the speakers. Food Bank President Eric Cooper began by commending the graduates for their hard work, calling them "heroes" and "soldiers," for helping with the fight against hunger. He encouraged everyone to "think about those we serve and nourish," and the obstacles they overcome.
"The need for food doesn't define them," Cooper said. "Their trial defines us. It's an opportunity to be that soldier for them."
Cooper compared someone suffering from hunger to the story from the Bible about a blind man healed by Jesus. Those who saw the man was blind assumed he was a sinner or had done something wrong, Cooper said, but it wasn't the man's fault that he was blind.
"Some of our trials come because of no choice of our own, and we must think of the legacy we want to leave," he added. "These students have made a mark on the Food Bank."
Express Lube Director of Fleet Operations and TV Spokesperson Bo Durkop and Express Lube Director of Operations Eric Galindo, the two special special guests at the event, shared stories of faith and perseverance with the graduates, at times moving some to tears.
Durkop, a former drug addict, was arrested multiple times, but after he let God into his life, he said, everything changed.
"I wasn't who you see today," Durkop said. "I was arrested multiple times and addicted to drugs, but one day I broke down and got tired of doing the same thing everyday. I let God in my heart, met my wife, and started working at Express Lube, vacuuming cars."
Durkop said he never imagined staying in that business, as he thought of finishing a college degree, thinking that was the only way to success. But Durkop put his trust in God, he said, and slowly moved up, until he landed the job he has today.
"Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding," Durkop said, encouraging audience members to approach him after the event if they were in need of a prayer.
Galindo shared his own testimony of spending seven years in a federal institution for selling cocaine.
"I know how you feel," Galindo told the inmates. "I've been where you're at. I lived a very horrible lifestyle and I was using cocaine every single day."
Galindo praised the many prison programs available to inmates in detention facilities, such as those in culinary arts, warehousing programs, and other areas. While he spoke of the benefits these programs offer, he also acknowledged the judgement individuals receive when they enter into such programs.
"What people don't understand as state and federal inmates, is that by joining these types of programs, there's a tremendous amount of scrutiny because you're going against the norm of prison life and society," Galindo said. "Many of the times, when you go back into the prison setting, people are very negative and say things like, 'Why do you do that, man? Why do you go over there? That's not gonna matter.'"
Galindo asked the graduates if they had experienced that, and many nodded. Galindo worked on cars and earned his associate degree in business while in the system despite being discouraged by other inmates and told he wouldn't succeed. Once he was released, Galindo enrolled in college and earned a bachelor's and master's degree. He is currently in pursuit of his Ph.D.
"What you are doing now is very powerful, because it's gonna make all the difference when you finally enter society," Galindo said. "You're gonna be told that you can't be successful, or that you'll never amount to anything, or that you're gonna wear your jacket forever. That is so untrue, false, and deluded. You can do anything that you want."
To find out more about programs at the San Antonio Food Bank, click here.
Top image: Samson Camion receives his graduation certificate. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.