Recently, Austin Weekly News reported the various efforts being made by advocacy groups Cease Fire and Eyes on Austin to aid former inmates living in Austin and the greater West Side. Another West Side group, Westside Health Authority (WHA), has also championed the cause to bring ex-offenders back into society with access to jobs, housing and health care.

WHA, located at 5437 W. Division, works in conjunction with the Sheridan Project, an initiative put in place two years ago by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to deal with prisoner re-entry.

The initiative was primarily responsible for launching the Sheridan Correctional Center in Sheridan, Ill. It is the largest facility solely dedicated to drug rehabilitation. Opened in 2004, there are currently 900 inmates in the facility, each with a case manager assigned to work with him to prepare him for his exit from prison.

“The recidivism rate is only 25 percent thus far since the facility opened, as opposed to 55 percent at other prisons,” said James Coleman, WHA reentry coordinator, “so clearly we need more places such as this to allow ex-offenders to make a transition away from their tarnished past and begin anew.”

WHA hosts weekly “Overcomers Meetings” every Thursday at its office. The meetings allow ex-offenders and residents from the neighborhood to come out and ask questions, receive words of encouragement and of course, eat. Along with counseling many of the ex-offenders that he works with, Coleman is also an accomplished chef.

“I cook most of the food at the meetings,” he said. “However, people from the community bring food as well. We average about 25-40 people a week. We see gang members, street kids, concerned parents and representatives from the ward offices. It is a wonderful thing.”

WHA also hosts monthly Community Support Advisory Council meetings to discuss happenings at Sheridan. The need to encourage the government to allocate more of its $1.1 billion budget toward reentry initiatives and what ways they can, within the group, give parolees the opportunity to help rebuild their own communities, are also discussed.

Representatives from Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th), Bethel New Life, Safer Foundation and Sheridan Correctional Facility, including Warden Mike Rothwell, often frequent these meetings.

“Recently we purchased a property on 5816 W. Division and rehabbed it to function as both a location to hold our [advisory council] meetings and a living quarters for ex-offenders,” said Coleman. “We hired formerly incarcerated individuals to help rehab the building and the great thing was, it was a total team effort. We did not receive a grant to buy this property. Many collaborators at the authority, especially CEO Jacqueline Reed, pitched in their own money for this building. It’s really showing the level of commitment we have to the cause to actually give the work to those who really need it.”

“We in Illinois are really revolutionizing how the formerly incarcerated are dealt with in this country,” Coleman added. “I have spoken to congressmen from New York and Los Angeles who are just getting hip to our initiatives and would like to implement similar programs in their city.”

The next Community Support Advisory Council meeting is on Dec. 14, at 1 p.m. at 5816 W. Division. For more information about WHA meetings and proposals, call 773/378-5034.