For nearly 40 years, Rockford Reachout Jail Ministry has provided hope and help to prison inmates and ex-offenders. It’s a personal mission to some leaders of this Rockford group.
In 1973, a group of church leaders wanted to help the men and women who were incarcerated in Winnebago County. They formed Rockford Reachout Jail Ministry, a nonprofit organization that, for more than 40 years, has offered faith-based classes, counseling and guidance to inmates at the Winnebago County Jail and the Juvenile Detention Center.
About two years ago, the organization extended its services to help those inmates transition back into society. Rockford Reachout assists ex-offenders in finding housing and jobs to help keep them on the right path.
“Our corner of the globe is working with the men, women and kids who no one else wants to work with,” says George Hofstetter, executive director. “The programs are designed to get inmates to think about all the things that caused them to act out criminally. If we give them no service at all, they fail to the tune of 70 percent and will return to jail. Our mission is to prepare the inmates for a crime-free life within the community. The question we ask them is, ‘Who do you want to be when you come back?’ I’m living proof of that.”
Hofstetter grew up in a Chicago home that was filled with negative behavior. His father started stealing cars at the age of 14. The younger Hofstetter found his own trouble as a teenager, getting arrested numerous times for drug use and criminal activity.
Things didn’t get any better as an adult. Eventually, he lost a good-paying sales job, his marriage and home. Life was a blur. “I hit rock bottom,” he says. “I was angry, I drank too much and I engaged in too much negative behavior. I couldn’t admit that I had a problem.”
The final straw was in 1996, when his father died after his long battle with alcoholism.
“When my dad died alone, on the kitchen floor, it broke my heart,” Hofstetter says. “Seeing my son born a couple of years later, and thinking about my dad, the light bulb finally came on. Screwing up my life was one thing, but screwing up his life was a whole different story. That started a long process of examining my life, my mistakes and saying to myself, ‘I don’t want to become my father.’”
Hofstetter started turning his life around. “I had a lot of damage to clean up,” he says. “I had to apologize to my parents, brothers, and my children. The first few years were tough, without God. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of failure.”
He found help through Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-based approach to recovery that was founded in 1990 by Pastors John Baker and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. He gradually became more honest with himself and began to rely on God.
It was as a volunteer with the Rockford Rescue Mission that Hofstetter learned of Rockford Reachout Jail Ministry, where he volunteered to teach classes to inmates. Who better than a former inmate? “It’s a labor of love,” says Hofstetter, who later became a board member and then executive director in 2012. “We’ve all had our struggles. God has blessed me greatly and this is the least I can do to give back.”
The board had no qualms about hiring a candidate with a checkered past. “I think he’s perfect for this job,” says board member Laura Padron. “He was in a bad place at one time, and now he’s in a good place. He’s earned that credibility. When he goes into jail, he can say, ‘I’ve been here and done that.’ That’s huge.”
With offices in the Winnebago County Jail, Rockford Reachout has a paid staff of six and 126 volunteers who come from all walks of life, including pastors, counselors, recovering addicts, church elders, retired teachers, police and parole officers.
“Our volunteers get down to the nitty gritty of what got the inmates here in the first place – drugs, anger, alcohol, all the above,” says Hofstetter. “We tackle issues head on. There’s no better time to do it than when they’re incarcerated because they’re very compliant and they’re scared. There’s a vulnerability there that opens them up to a life change.”
These days, the Winnebago County Jail has an average daily population of about 1,100 men and women, according to Hofstetter. “They’re in for everything from writing bad checks to murder,” he says.
“Most of these people incarcerated are in a state of denial. They spend their days and nights trying to get high. Losing their jobs makes sense to them. Alienating their family makes sense. They feel like an attorney screwed them or that the police are out to get them. It’s never their fault. It’s everybody but them.”
Last year, Rockford Reachout ministered to 6,200 men, women and children, providing services such as chaplain visits, counseling, Bible study, and weekly church services. The staff handled 17,000 requests, distributed 10,000 Bibles and other religious books, and donated more than 12,000 hours, which equals six full-time staff members at no cost to Winnebago County.
Like any nonprofit organization, funding is tight for Rockford Reachout, which is supported by faith-based organizations, individuals, businesses and foundation grants. Securing more funds would allow Rockford Reachout to fill programming and staffing needs such as full-time youth and outreach coordinators.
“No one is getting rich doing this,” Hofstetter says. “We do it because we love it and we see lives being changed. There’s no better feeling than when someone you haven’t seen in a long time, hugs you and says, ‘I haven’t touched crack for two years.’ This is a community-changing program, but we need more oomph. That’s where the money comes in.”
Every year, Rockford Reachout holds a fundraising dinner at the Nicholas Conservatory Gardens that includes former inmates who return to share their inspirational stories. The organization also hopes to host a charity 5K run as early as next year.
“At one point in their lives, our graduates were train wrecks, disasters, incarcerated multiple times,” Hofstetter says. “But through our programs, they learn that God loves them. They start to get clean and become honest with themselves. We’ve seen men and women who come before the judge and confess. Mothers and fathers are reunited with their kids. Restore a couple of families and you have a neighborhood. Restore a neighborhood and you have a community.”
The annual dinner has profoundly impacted Padron, a registered nurse, who joined the board nearly a year ago. “I’ve always been an in-the-trenches type of person,” she says. “I like to work with organizations that are intimately involved on the front lines, and this group does that. It’s optional, but I get to work in the jail with a women’s group. That’s why most of us got involved in the first place. It takes a village to help these people who are down. When you’re stuck in an 8 x 10 jail cell, you do a lot of soul searching. There’s a come-to-Jesus moment for many of these people.”
By her own count, Amber Wilson has been arrested more than 60 times on charges ranging from drug conspiracy to unauthorized use of a firearm. Wilson ran away numerous times as a teenager, including to Mexico, when she was just 15.
“When I was a young girl, my mom disappeared from my life,” says the Rockford resident. “I was in the foster care system and then I became a runaway. I was placed in a juvenile detention center because I was a flight risk, and there weren’t any other options for me. As a teenager, I wasn’t really at a desirable age to be adopted.”
Wilson got involved with Rockford Reachout during her last incarceration, in 2004. Taking classes and talking with volunteers, she came to realize there was hope and a way to turn her life around. She’s been clean ever since. Wilson has been reunited with her two oldest children and has a steady job as a restaurant server. Life is good.
“It’s hard to believe that I’ve experienced the things I have,” she says. “But at the same time, I believe the Lord put me in this place to help people going through the same things I did.”
Now she’s sharing her story with others. Wilson is training to become a counselor for the Reachout program at the Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center.
“I felt it was in my heart,” she says. “There has to be more options out there to save these little boys and girls, who are hurt and broken. The cycle goes on. I have children who were being exposed to the same thing, but it doesn’t have to get to that point; it can be stopped. My testimony might help to change their situations. They have a choice to do right or wrong. Every day is another opportunity to get it right.”
No one knows that better than Hofstetter, who’s been sober for five years. Three years ago he married his wife, Mindy, whom he met at Heartland Community Church. His children, Jacob and Paige, are back in his life; he’s busy attending their theater productions and soccer matches. And, he has a job he cherishes every day.
“We’re here to serve God and He is a God of second chances,” he says. “As Christians, we forgive, but it doesn’t mean we have to forget. What a great legacy for Rockford Reachout if we could create a safe community and help transform Rockford. I shudder to think what would happen if we weren’t doing this to help those in need. We’ve been doing this for 40 years, and hopefully we’ll be doing it for another 40 years.”