Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative is spurring change in the Southeast 

A new horizon

click to enlarge THRIVE’s founder Taj Stokes. - J. ADRIAN STANELY
  • J. Adrian Stanely
  • THRIVE’s founder Taj Stokes.
Taj Stokes first heard about the program that would become Transforming Safety Colorado from a straightforward woman named Christie Donner.

Donner, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, was working on the details of a bill to be introduced in the state Legislature aimed at reforming the criminal justice system and creating pilot programs to build up communities and prevent crime. North Aurora had already been selected for the pilot and she was shopping for a second location.

She met with Stokes because he’s the founder of THRIVE Colorado Springs, a business-creation education program in Colorado Springs’ economically strained but culturally vibrant Southeast. THRIVE was Stokes’ passion project — he paid his bills with side gigs, including a bouncy house rental business. He was a little shocked that Donner even knew who he was. And when she asked him why the state should invest in the Southeast when the city obviously hadn’t, he nervously blurted out the first thing that popped into his head.

The Southeast, he told her, “has some of the most amazing people.”

They were already building community, rallying around their kids, and trying to help each other succeed. But everybody who was sacrificing to make the community better, Stokes included, was broke.

House Bill 1326, or the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative — sponsored by Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs; Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs; and Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village — passed and was signed in 2017.
The bill changes the length of time a parolee may serve for a technical parole violation, like failure to show up for meetings with parole officers. By keeping many parolees from returning to prison, or keeping them there for shorter stints if they do, the bill saves money that’s redirected to a program run through the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), which allocates the funds through a community-based grant fund and small business loan program in the two pilot areas.

That’s $3 million a year for grants to the communities and $1 million a year for small business loans (limited to five years and $50,000; check transformingsafety.org for more on the loans).

After the bill passed, DOLA contracted with the Denver Foundation to be its fiscal agent, and they in turn, partnered with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation to be the fiscal agent for the Southeast program. PPCF’s first order of business was forming a local planning team, a diverse group of change-makers that would set priorities for grants. The Southeast LPT, with 25 members, including Independent columnist Patience Kabwasa and Stokes, set boundaries for the Southeast area and then outlined four priority areas for funding, explains Eula Tapman, PPCF program officer. They are: Support adults and youth who are, or have been, involved with the criminal justice system, to reduce recidivism; help youth under age 25 to stop high-risk behaviors that can lead them to the criminal justice system; address systemic causes of economic, racial and academic disparities; and improve community-based supports to reduce violence and neglect in families.

Stokes says the group, brought together largely with the help of Jeannie Orozco, Harrison School District 2 board member and Council of Neighbors and Organization’s community coordinator, was an epiphany. All these people, from educators to nonprofit leaders to pastors hadn’t been in the same room together before, and they formed lasting friendships.

The grant program attracted 37 applicants; 11 were selected for this first round. Many of the LPT members’ organizations received grants from PPCF, including Stokes’ THRIVE.

Stokes says his $161,300 grant will allow him to quit the side gigs and finally collect a salary, while offering the same two business start-up courses a year, but this time for up to 40 people each instead of 12. His goal is to help launch 150 businesses in the Southeast over three years.

Other grantees include Kingdom Builders Family Life Center. Before winning a $129,490 grant, Lisa Jenkins was also working full-time to support her family, while running her nonprofit on the side — and raising 13-year-old twin girls and soon-to-be-adopted 3-year-old twin boys. (She also has three adult children, including a daughter who mentors at Kingdom Builders.)

A survivor of domestic violence in her first marriage, Jenkins started her nonprofit to support kids and parents through struggles, mentor at-risk youth and, perhaps most importantly, “love on” kids.

Her grant means she can finally collect a salary, move to a bigger location at the Satellite Hotel, and expand her program, which includes outings for struggling families, domestic violence support groups, and classes and mentoring for kids in everything from bullying to self esteem — even homework help. Jenkins trains and carefully selects her mentors. She wants successful young adults to mentor the kids.

“We want to show them that we’re investing in them, to see them succeed,” she says.

With the grant, she can offer classes several nights a week, instead of just Friday, and far more families can participate.

With its $145,060 grant, the Youth Transformation Center, which offers restorative justice services, will expand from D-2’s middle and high schools to elementary schools, President and Founder Jeannette Holtham says, explaining that the interventions prevent expulsions and suspensions and help set kids on a good path.

She recalls one young man in trouble for arguing. The freshman didn’t want to participate in her program, but with the support of two older volunteers, seniors in high school, he revealed that his family had been killed in front of him and he had been shot at. No one at the school knew about his past, or the pain and anger it caused. Talking about it was healing, and the two older boys offered to be his brothers, and to help him pursue his passion by getting on the JV basketball team.

“That is an ideal restorative justice circle,” she says.

Stokes says he and the other community leaders hope these grants make a big difference, because they know the state, and nation, are watching — HB1326 has been much discussed in state legislative circles.

“It shifts the power back to the community,” he says. “Now it’s up to us what we do with it.”


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