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Santa Rosa Junior College expands programs for currently, formerly incarcerated students

On the third floor of the Bertolini Student Center, Santa Rosa Junior College counselor Rhonda Findling gathered for her weekly meeting with about 20 formerly incarcerated students. On the top of her agenda was asking for volunteers to speak about their life experiences to youth at area schools.

Jason Dorfer, a welding student raised in Santa Rosa who spent years in and out of jail on drug-related charges, was the first to volunteer, pending permission from his probation officer.

“I feel in my history I took from society, and now I feel like I want to give back,” said Dorfer, 41.

The volunteer opportunity was one of many offered by Second Chance, a support program for formerly incarcerated students founded at the college about a decade ago.

Over the last few years, Second Chance and another program the college launched about three years ago that offers classes to inmates in jail have expanded. The college, which has faced declining enrollment, expects to more than double the number of incarcerated students within the next two years.

There are about 120 people in jail enrolled in the courses, and the number is projected to grow to 260 students by 2021, said Robert Holcomb, dean of language arts and academic foundation.

Campus officials didn't have figures for how many of their 28,000 students were formerly incarcerated. However, Findling said there are up to 50 active members in Second Chance.

“We're trying to build a community,” Findling said. “This is about crime and recidivism. If we're reducing crime, we're helping everybody. We're making our community safer by turning lives around.”

She meets with the group of formerly incarcerated students weekly, and they discuss their experiences while being imprisoned and the hurdles they face in college. As a counselor, Findling offers education guidance and directs the group to volunteer opportunities, social justice conferences, scholarships, free legal clinics and other resources.

“I'd say 80% of students turn their lives around and are successful,” Findling said. When students don't, it's usually because they're dealing with an addiction, she said.

Richard Ortiz, a retired probation officer who worked at the county and federal level for 43 years, volunteers with the Second Chance program and helps with expungement workshops.

“This is one of the most amazing programs I've ever been a part of,” Ortiz said. “It's kind of been a big family here.”

Earlier this month, the California Community College Chancellor's Office awarded SRJC a $113,000 grant to support educational efforts for current and formerly incarcerated students. The money will go toward course materials, admissions support and programming.

“We hope to build (the jail program) further, especially under the new grant,” Findling said.

The jail program, called Inspiring Greatness Inside Through Education, or IGNITE, serves inmates at the Main Adult Detention Facility and the North County Detention Facility in Santa Rosa. Course selections have changed since the program first began in 2016, when dozens of incarcerated students were enrolled in noncredit math and English courses.

This semester, for the first time, incarcerated students are enrolled in developmental courses that count for credit, including basic math, sentence and paragraph development, writing style and organization and a culinary arts survey classes. Courses weren't offered last fall as the college reconfigured the program, Holcomb said.

The courses are offered in six-week intervals. The college sends its admission and records employees to the jails to help inmates navigate the registration process and apply for fee waivers, which most get.

Some students have bad memories of school, whether they were being bullied or fell in with the wrong crowd, Holcomb said.

“A hurdle for them is to hit reset on educational opportunities and reengage trust, build back their self-esteem,” Holcomb said.

Daniel Snell knows the struggles of transitioning from jail to school all too well. The 36-year-old said he spent years in and out of jail since he was a teen and had a methamphetamine addiction up until two years ago. He's now a political science student at the college with a 4.0 GPA and ambition to one day go to law school.

As a Second Chance member, he said he speaks at local schools about his experience being incarcerated and abusing drugs, in hopes that it will deter youth.

“Speaking is hard, but I've pushed myself to do it,” Snell said.

Elizabeth Quiroz, a formerly incarcerated student who is the president of Second Chance, said the group helps empower each other and raise confidence, while exploring their identify after being in jail.

“It helps us take our power back and give back to others,” said Quiroz, who's organizing a car show at the Santa Rosa campus on June 22 to raise money for the club.

Angel Carretero on Tuesday proudly wore her Second Chance T-shirt, which features an image of fists in handcuffs and the words “education not incarceration.”

Carretero, 37, was homeless for five years. She now works the graveyard shift at a Catholic Charities homeless shelter while balancing her studies in human services.

“I realize I got a choice. I've changed my perception and I really want to do the hard work,” said Carretero, who's seeking visitation rights with her 10-year-old daughter who she hasn't seen since she was a toddler. “This is a place we want to be.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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