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50 years of rebuilding lives: Alston Wilkes Society

By Jessica Connor

John Smith knows more than his share about bad decisions.

More than a decade ago, Smith (not his real name) was a law enforcement officer and had just gotten out of the military.

“But I made a wrong choice,”  he said, winding up in prison on a drug charge.

Smith was incarcerated for about 10 years, then moved to South Carolina, where he entered the adult re-entry facility of Alston Wilkes Society. For three full months, he worked with counselors and other Alston Wilkes partners, deepening his skills and training, assessing his education and teaming up for job placement.

They really got me on my feet,  Smith said.

Ultimately, thanks to the strong foundation he received from Alston Wilkes and his drive to make something of himself, Smith turned his life around. Today, he travels the state speaking to troubled youth at churches and other venues about bad decisions and how to stick to the proper path in life. He has a passion to try to deter these from what he had to experience. And he credits Alston Wilkes Society, an advance special ministry of the United Methodist Church, with sparking that fire within him.

A lot of organizations talk the talk, but they actually walk the walk by proven testimonies of people who go through the various programs,  Smith said, calling Alston Wilkes a great organization in rebuilding lives. 

He said what the group does really works. 

They have a genuine care about helping people and giving people a second chance to be productive citizens within the community,  Smith said.

And today, 50 years after Alston Wilkes Society began, thousands upon thousands of former offenders can say the same.

This year, Alston Wilkes marks its golden anniversary. While the group started to help men get back on their feet after being released from prison, today the society helps offenders, former offenders, the homeless, at-risk youth, veterans and their families get the tools they need to become productive citizens.

It s turning lives around one by one,  said Anne Walker, executive director of Alston Wilkes since 1987. It s showing them they re not alone. They re getting a helping hand. 

Surprised by success

Alston Wilkes helps those most at-risk rebuild their lives through rehabilitation and prevention services. They offer residential re-entry centers in Charleston, Columbia and Florence; community services statewide; veterans homes in Columbia and Greenville; a group care intensive services home in Columbia; and youth services across the state.

With their residential re-entry centers, they have a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to work with offenders completing federal sentences and provide a range of services of from counseling to job placement and more.

We have a 90 percent success rate with our federal programs,  Walker said.

Services run the gamut: They provide food, connect people with housing, help them get proper identification and transportation, like a bus ticket; help them get jobs and form relationships with people willing to hire offenders; and reconnect with their faith.

We re really straight up with them, tell it straight: cut your hair, cover tattoos, cover your cleavage, no short skirts. We don t play,  Walker said. Every day is a challenge, every day an opportunity to help somebody. 

The society started in 1962 thanks to the passion of the late United Methodist pastor the Rev. Eli Alston Wilkes. Wilkes was appointed at the time to the Columbia-based homeless ministry Oliver Gospel Mission, and he became concerned about men who were getting released from prison.

He wanted them to get on their feet as quickly as possible so they could become taxpayers, not tax burdens,  Walker explained.

Wilkes started what was then called the South Carolina Therapeutic Association to do just that. But just a year and a half later, Wilkes died. A core of committed volunteers ran the organization for a while, renaming it Alston Wilkes Society: people like the Rev. Eben Taylor, Rhett Jackson and Howard McClain.

A year or so later Parker Evatt, who was then an engineer with the highway department, learned about the group. Evatt was a member at College Place United Methodist Church, and Taylor was his pastor.

Eben said to me, ˜There s a meeting at the prison; you should go visit the Alston Wilkes Society,  Evatt recalled.

Evatt went to a meeting and realized the group was struggling.

I said, ˜I can help get members, so I went back to my church and got four Sunday school classes and men and women of the church and 15 individuals to join,  Evatt said.

Soon enough, he found himself being hired as the group s executive director “ a position he initially thought he didn t want. But the people behind the group “ people like the Rev. Fred Reese “ knew they had found their man in Evatt.

I said, ˜Fred, what part of ˜no don t you understand,  Evatt said, chuckling at the memory. He just laughed. And five weeks later I accepted the job. 

Evatt stayed 21 years, and in 1987 he became the South Carolina Commissioner of Corrections.

The first day I came home from work, I said, ˜Honey, I don t know what I ve done; it s just going to be a tremendous challenge. I just don t know if the people are going to respond t
o this,  Evatt said. But I was absolutely shocked at the response I got statewide. 

Walker, who had been the organization s first female caseworker, was named director soon in 1987 and has served ever since.

As Jesus did

While some things have changed at Alston Wilkes Society over the years “ more staff, more money to do things, more people to serve “ its core values about personal service have not.

Volunteers don t take the just-released inmates home with them (like they did in the 1960s), but they do all they can to help them rebuild their lives,  Walker said. They take it personally. 

Our whole goal is what Jesus is proclaiming in the entirety of his ministry ¦ to reach out and deal with the people in their infirmities and their needs in the particular time that they lived. He showed us how and taught us how,  said Dr. James Adams, retired United Methodist pastor who serves as president of the Alston Wilkes board. Our role at Alston Wilkes is to emulate that as much as possible. 

Even though logically they know they cannot save everybody, still they try.

The majority of the people we deal with don t have all the pieces of the puzzle in their life put together,  Walker said. You ve heard it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a village to get a person back to being able to function in life. 

They are people who are otherwise left behind in so many ways,  Adams said.

Walker said many offenders don t have a birth certificate or a state identification card when they are released, and unless they have an extraordinarily strong family support system, they flounder upon release and return to their old ways because they have no other way to survive.

How in the world do we expect people in such a short period of time to get it together?  she asked. It takes time. If people don t have housing, jobs, these things in place, then they are more likely to commit a crime. 

On the horizon

With more people in prison now than ever before “ not to mention societal problems that do more to cause than assuage homelessness, addiction and troubled youth “ the people who make up Alston Wilkes know the need for their group will likely always be present.

More people are hurting,  Evatt said. There s a need there. 

Walker said today Alston Wilkes employs 110 people and has a budget of about $6 million, serving more than 7,000 people annually.

Adams said their group is always in a transition stage to identify the needs of the community and respond to them the best way they can, always with Jesus at their helm.

At the end, it s all about working with groups and individuals, from mayors and county councils to civic leaders, to make communities betters places for the citizens.

For her part, Walker hopes to help Alston Wilkes Society mark its 75-year anniversary.

This is my ministry,  she said. It s all about relationships, and we re in the relationship business. 

Alston Wilkes Society will celebrate their anniversary with a celebration Nov. 15 at Seawell s in Columbia. For more about Alston Wilkes and upcoming ways it will mark 50 years of service to society, visit www.alstonwilkessociety.org .

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