Research shows that community support during the first six to 12 months after individuals are released from jail or prison is critical to their success. 

That is where Community Circles of Support comes in. This group of volunteers meets weekly with ex-offenders to help them make a successful transition from incarceration into the community. Among this group of volunteers are two members of the Retired & Senior Volunteer 55+ Program who collectively have served 196 hours during the last year.

Rob Zeegers coordinates meetings of Community Circles of Support, where groups of adult volunteers meet weekly with men and women released from prison or jail to assist them in making a successful transition to the community. He also is on the board of directors of ESTHER, a nonprofit organization that addresses prison and criminal justice issues from a systemic point of view. He is a co-leader of the organization’s prison reform task force, which meets monthly.

   Volunteers serve as mentors and role models during the 90-minute weekly meetings, which provide emotional support to formerly incarcerated individuals. Volunteers provide resources on employment, housing, counseling, transportation and clothing. They also help them with budgeting and setting goals.

   A member of the community, Rob Zeegers, coordinates the meetings, which are held at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays at First United Methodist Church in Appleton and at 6 p.m. on Thursdays at First United Methodist Church in Neenah. He describes the meetings as morale boosters. He is inspired by participants.

   “I learn a lot, too,” he said. “How resilient and hard-working a lot of these people are. They want to be successful and want to change their lives.”

   Zeegers always has been interested in prison issues and reform. He worked in the education field in Chicago for most of his 40-year career as a teacher and administrator. He worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago and was a consultant for secondary schools.

   When he retired in 2012, he decided to return to his Appleton roots.

   “My 10 siblings are all in the Valley,” he said. “I was the only one who moved out of the area, so when I retired in 2012, I moved back here.”

   Joining Community Circles of Support a handful of years ago was a logical next step.

   “I wanted to get involved in some civic organizations and I’ve also been involved in social justice ministry. This looked like a very practical way of doing hands-on and help people transition from prison back into society.”

   Zeegers explained that when formerly incarcerated men and women are accepted into the program, the organization doesn’t dwell on the past.

   “From day one, we don’t want to hear anything about your past incarceration,” he said. “This is the ‘new you’ and we are looking forward to your transition back into society and we want to help you develop positive habits.”

   While volunteers receive some specialized training on motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral strategies, their main role is to listen and to ask questions.

   “In these weekly meetings, everyone does a check-in,” Zeegers said. “We ask them about things that may have happened during their week, high points and low points and any issues they may have had relating with their family. The last half of the meeting focuses on the upcoming week, ‘Do you have enough food, are you going to be able to make your rent?’”

   If time permits, meetings include a topic, such as building resumes.

   Zeegers explains that ex-offenders often face an uphill battle. To assist them financially, Community Circles of Support gives them gift certificates. He said they have generous donors and their budget is under the auspices of ESTHER.

   “Housing is very hard for ex-prisoners to get,” he said. “We give them information on how to get in touch with the public housing authority, Pillars, public transportation and food pantries. Some of them just have the clothes on their back. One of my clients had no winter coat when he first came here.”

   To learn more about volunteering at Community Circles of Support, call 920-840-2918 or e-mail circlescanhelp@gmail.com.

                                                                                  – By Jan Sommerfeld, RSVP director