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With help from Catholic Charities, Travis reconnects with community after prison

By Nancy Rosebush Schertzing | Photography by Tom Gennara | June 2017

With help from Catholic Charities, Travis reconnects with community after prison

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” – Heb 13:2

“You know, I look over my life – growing up, going to prison, being on the streets. I believe God puts certain things in your path to have you in a time and place to help others.”

Travis Epps reflects on the journey that led him to this moment in the basement of St. Michael Parish in Flint. As a volunteer and former client of Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties, Travis sees God’s guiding hand from both perspectives.

“It’s like I tell people, if you’ve never been in a certain predicament, you learn to adjust. I learned that the hard way when my friend’s cousin offered me a ride and broke into someone’s home while I was in his car. He told me he was stopping at a friend’s house for a minute and came out with a TV and computer. Before I knew it, the police were swarming the car.

“No prior criminal record, but I found myself in a courtroom with a public defender who really didn’t do anything. I got six years in the California prison system as an accessory, starting out at Level 3 and working my way to Level 1.

“I went in with seven guys, and from the beginning they wanted me to lead them. I’m basically someone who does what’s right, or if I see something that needs to be done, I do it. So the prison guards used to come to me to help with inmate conflicts. We inmates had our own system that’s a lot like mediation. I helped avoid some conflicts and kept others from spreading.

“Graduating through the different levels, I worked on a community crew – planting trees and maintaining parks. I worked in the prison machine shop and was part of the kitchen staff.

“I left prison with work experience, but no home, no car, no belongings – and no one who wanted to hire me with a felony record. I tried to go to Minnesota, where my mother and stepfather could take me in, but the system assigned my parole to Sacramento. I found a bed in a shelter until they transferred my parole to Minnesota. I lived with my mother and stepfather a while, then moved to Iowa to marry a young lady in the service. I stayed with her parents while she was deployed to the Middle East. But our marriage ended and my mother became very ill, so I followed her to Flint to take care of her.

“My mother can’t stay in one place very long. Once she got her health back, she moved on without either my stepfather or me. I lived with him for a while until he left to live with a new lady. That left me homeless again, just like when I got out of prison. Being homeless is a humbling experience. It takes you down to the bare necessities. Like I said, though, you learn to adjust and to appreciate what you do have.

“One day I followed some of the other homeless guys to Catholic Charities Warming Center. The Warming Center provided a way to get out of the cold and get my basic meals. They helped me out with clothing and personal items in the Faith in Flint backpack, which I still like to wear. You have to leave the Warming Center three times a day so they can clean your space up, but they always welcome you back. The staff – Mary, Vicky, Rae, Dan – they’re like family. They don’t look down on you. They never made me feel that I was less than anyone else.

“When I found a place of my own, Mary gave me a letter verifying I had stayed at the Warming Center for a period of time. This helped me qualify for my first apartment by the Flint Public Library. It was close enough for me to participate in Catholic Charities Re-Connections Program, which helps parolees return to life outside prison. I earned a certificate in building maintenance, got help writing a resume and picked out some nice clothes to wear for interviews. Re-Connections really gets involved in helping former inmates prepare for work and life on their own after serving their time. I’m hoping for a job in a factory or warehouse because that’s something I used to do. I also love to cook, so I could be a cook somewhere too.

“Wherever I work, I’ve learned the value of the saying, ‘To thy-self be true.’ If you’re not true to yourself or believe in yourself, how can you expect others to be true to or believe in you? I also know it’s important to learn from your mistakes and move on, because no matter what I’ve done in my past, it is my past.

“After a while, I moved out to my new place in Burton, but I missed the Catholic Charities folks so much, I came back to volunteer. Now I help out every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s such a great feeling to see people’s smiles when they get things they need and when they get items they don’t need, knowing they can help someone else. “My favorite passage from the Bible says something like, ‘Be careful how you treat people because you might be entertaining angels.’ I try to live that, and I try not to be too prideful to let others help me. Here at Catholic Charities, we really can be angels to each other.”

Catholic Charities help parolees reconnect 

Catholic Charities agencies in the Diocese of Lansing help parolees reconnect with their communities. Their programs offer education, mentoring, counseling and life skills.

Catholic Charities of Jackson, Lenawee & Hillsdale Counties

Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County

Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties

Livingston County Catholic Charities

St. Vincent Catholic Charities