OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – LaVon Stennis-Williams knows firsthand that life after incarceration can be extremely difficult.
“I founded Reconnect in 2011, it was part of my second chance,” she says. “I was a lawyer who went to jail, and when I got home, I wish a program like this was available”
Reconnect Inc. helps those who have served their sentence to prepare for life on the outside.
“We provide services such as helping them learn life skills, how to reintegrate into the community, finding a job, housing and even family reunification, so we kind of do a one-stop shop to help people reacclimatize in community and back with their families once they’ve been incarcerated,” LaVon says. “What we call a second chance is actually a first chance for a lot of people.”
It was this message that resonated with Ann and Brad Ashford when they met LaVon several years ago.
“Brad believed so much in the justice system and what it can do right and what it can do wrong, and that he’s trying to improve what he’s doing wrong,” says Ann Ashford, l wife of Brad. “But he also believed that everyone had an opportunity, whether it was a first chance or a second chance.”
Reconnect is one of the organizations where the late congressman would donate his time, energy and resources.
“If you could put a face to giving, or passion, it would be Brad,” LaVon says. “That’s what I’ll always remember is how much he really wanted to uplift people and he believed in second chances. I’m a part of those relationships, I remember trying to explain my situation to him after when I got home, and he said “it’s not necessary, you did what you were supposed to do, now let’s move on.”
As Reconnect sees a growing need, they have opened a pantry with clothing and hygiene products.
“We are seeing an increase not only in the number of people incarcerated, but also in people struggling with employment, who come for basic needs. We don’t provide food, but they come for sanitary pads, razors or deodorant, and we couldn’t meet the needs,” LaVon says.
After Brad passed away, Ann and her family asked people to donate to her cause in her memory. Reconnection is one.
On Wednesday, Ann brought hygiene products that were donated in Brad’s name to Reconnect.
“LaVon said, ‘I have a surprise for you, but I also have to ask for your permission,'” Ann recalled.
“Because of their belief in what we were doing, we asked Ann for approval to name our pantry after [Brad] because that would be the best way to recognize his memory and thank him and Ann for their years of supporting our program,” says LaVon.
“I burst into tears because it was one of the most touching gestures, and something that means so much to all of us and would have meant the world to him,” Ann says.
As the pantry continues to grow, LaVon’s goal is to encourage those who pass by to be like Brad, to be passionate and to follow.
“I want to empower everyone who walks through that door to be like Brad Ashford.”
“It’s interesting, he never thought he was going to die,” Ann says. “But when you watch someone who’s dying, they tend to get rid of the things that aren’t very important to them, and those things that are most important stay with them until the end. That which was most important to Brad, ended up being the justice system and making sure it worked for everyone.
Ann says that after seeing the Brad Ashford Second Chance Pantry at Reconnect, she recognizes the good it will do for those most affected and looking to move on after being involved in the justice system.
“That was it,” she said.
Before his death, former President Barack Obama sent a letter to Brad while he was battling brain cancer. Ann says he was in the hospital when she read the letter to him aloud. Halfway through, he realized who he was from.
“It was one of the few times he never cried out of sadness or fear during this whole experience, but the things that touched him so deeply in his heart, and there were a number of other times where friends reached out and it was just something that made so much sense.
Ann says Brad’s passing was met with endless support and kind words from friends, family and strangers.
As we move through our daily lives, Ann says we should all be more like Brad.
“I want you to be open to others, I know that’s what he wanted. I want you to understand our history because we learn from our history and only then can we move forward and not make the same mistakes again, and I want you to really reach out to others, let them know you’re there to help them, and then follow through.
For more information on how to support or donate to Reconnect Inc., you can visit their website here.
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