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ANN CONWAY

Removing Bars to a Fresh Start

March 23, 1998|ANN CONWAY

One boy spiked his. His brother slicked his back. The little girl went for curls. Her teenage sister let it flow.

The special hairdos were for a fancy party, probably the biggest party of their lives. It was going to celebrate the end of an old life--the one that got Dad locked up--and the beginning of a new one, thanks to Re-Entry Home, a nonprofit organization in Lake Forest that helps ex-prisoners reestablish their lives.

For 14 months, Dad had been behind bars. But now, here at a benefit for Re-Entry Home, they were all together again.

On the surface, all those years ago, John and his wife had the beautiful life: children, lakeside home, antique-car collection, six-figure income.

But behind closed doors, ugliness had come to call: Drug abuse. Betrayal. Neglect.

"At first, we had all the toys and all the friends who came with it," says John, 42, who asked that his real name not be used in this story.

But keeping up with the Joneses had a price--job pressure, long hours, stress.

Drugs entered the picture.

It would be drug possession that sent John to prison. Along the way, his wife left him and was also imprisoned for drug possession, he says.

Hurt and bewildered, the couple's four children would be shipped off to foster homes.

While he served a 14-month sentence, there were times when John dreaded his release from prison, he says.

With no job and no relatives, he had no place to go.

"I was almost afraid to get out because I didn't know where to go and I didn't want to fall back into where I'd been."

Enter Jim Bronson, president of Re-Entry Home, one of several outreach organizations in Orange County that help former prisoners find a new way of life.

Bronson helped establish Re-Entry, affiliated with Lake Hills Community Church in Laguna Hills, two years ago after learning that "80% of prisoners return to jail" after serving their sentences.

"There is a cycle of crime," he says. "These guys go in, come out, go back in again. We want to stop the cycle, help those that need help so they don't go back."

Supporters of Re-Entry Home hope to help 15 men this year, Bronson says. Their long-term goal: the purchase of several group homes for men and women.

When he learned of John's situation, Bronson made his own home available to him after John was discharged from prison three weeks ago. He also helped him find a job and an apartment.

Now, one by one, John's children--of whom he has sole custody--are coming home.

"To have my kids under one roof, to cook for them, read to them, go the park and play with them, is a blessing," John says.

"I owe them a lot. Without them, I don't know where I'd be. And without Jim, I might not have made it."

Says Bronson: "John is a warm, wonderful, loving man who needed a friend--someone to love and help him."

When he was discharged from prison, time was running out for John to meet a deadline set by Social Services to retain parental rights. "When you go to prison, you enter into a form of neglect [with your children]," he says. "Being in prison is [considered] a form of abandonment because you can't take care of them."

After serving his sentence, he had 30 days to get a job, establish a residence and have it approved by Social Services. "I've been able to do it all with the help of Re-Entry Home," he says.

*

"This feels good; things are going to be better," says the 12-year-old boy, during the benefit attended by 100 people on Saturday at Michael's Supper Club in Dana Point.

Observes the 8-year-old boy: "It's great to be with my dad. I'm going to be helping him fix up our house."

Clinging to her daddy, the 6-year-old girl is too shy to talk.

But the 14-year-old girl speaks of a double celebration. Not only does the party celebrate a return to her father, it marks a reunion with her brothers and sister. She was separated from them during their stay in foster homes. "The hardest part has been not being able to see Dad and not being able to spend much time with my brothers and sisters," she says. "When we used to be together, we'd fight and argue. But I sure missed it after a while."

Together, the family sat down to dinner at a table topped with white linen, china and crystal. Like old times, they dug into chicken, veggies and ice cream sundaes.

And when Dad got up to speak, they went onstage with him, standing proudly at his side. "The most important thing in my life was getting back with my family and being their father again," John says, choking up. "The first thing I got when I got out of prison was a hug from Jim [Bronson]. It returned me to humanity, made me feel like a person again and was probably the best thing I ever had--except for seeing my children. I'd like to thank all of you for making this possible."

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