LSSI’s Building Homes: Rebuilding Lives
Celebrating a Decade of Partnership

Eye on LSSI, Spring 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Volunteers work on one of three homes built during last June’s Habitat for Humanity “Blitz Build” in East St. Louis. When Shelli Gresham and her two children first saw the wood framing of their new Habitat for Humanity home, they fought over the bedrooms they each wanted to claim. The single mom recalls, “I won.”

This Springfield resident, however, wasn’t the only winner involved in the 1,200-square-foot house she and her family helped build in 2002. Thanks to a decade-long partnership of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), School District 428, Habitat for Humanity and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), the building components that currently support the Gresham home go beyond lumber and nails. Built by incarcerated men and juveniles in Illinois for local Habitat for Humanity affiliates, walls and roof trusses that eventually become housing for low-income families demonstrate the success of LSSI’s program Building Homes: Rebuilding Lives. In 2000, it became a winner of the national Mutual of America Community Partnership Award for outstanding collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Established by the agency’s Prisoner and Family Ministry in 1995, the program has helped inmates of 18 prisons around the state to contribute to the construction of 260 Habitat for Humanity homes in Illinois and neighboring states. The project offers the 400-plus inmates the opportunity to give back to the community. In the process, they gain valuable trade skills and a sense of self-worth that will hopefully help them after their release from prison.

All of the partners bring something to the Building Homes program. Habitat provides the housing site, selects appropriate families and recruits community volunteers. IDOC inmates supply skilled labor, assembling panelized housing components on prison grounds. School District 428 contributes instruction through prison-based vocational teachers who recruit motivated inmates.

Before he received an eight-year sentence for drug charges, Tyrone Marshall, 40, built homes as a contractor and had once owned a small construction company. Marshall reduced his time in prison to three years through good behavior and was released in late January 2005. During the past year and a half, he helped build seven Habitat houses at the Hardin County Work Camp in Cave-In-Rock, as well as dollhouses for Building Homes’ fundraising auctions.

“The program lets you know that you can get back out into the world and do something constructive,” says Marshall. “You find there is more to life than staying in the ‘yuck.’”

Program Answers a Need

In 2004, the Illinois Department of Corrections reported a prison population of 44,379 adults and 1,603 juveniles. In 1995, IDOC statistics showed 37,852 adults and 1,631 juveniles in Illinois prisons. That was when Pastor Jack Nordgaard, founder and then executive director of LSSI’s Prisoner and Family Ministry program, saw a need to help inmates to develop the skills and outlook on life that they would require to re-enter society.

Concerned with the high rate of recidivism (released inmates returning to prison), Nordgaard searched for ways to provide prisoners with marketable skills and, eventually, future employment. Nordgaard, who retired in 1996, remarks, “There is almost a guarantee that those who don’t find jobs will be back in prison.”

In 1991, Nordgaard hit upon the idea of what would become the Building Homes: Rebuilding Lives program while hearing a keynote address of Millard Fuller, who founded the not-for-profit Habitat for Humanity. During the presentation’s Q&A session, Nordgaard asked Fuller, “Why don’t you have a program for prisoners to work in Habitat [to] build homes for low-income families?” Fuller quipped, “Because you haven’t started it!”

So Nordgaard did just. He approached the warden of a minimum-security prison for women in Kankakee and gained her buy-in. “We [LSSI] then went ahead and hired a construction manager to work with the prisoners to rehab a house.” When the female inmates completed the project, Nordgaard recalls their joy. “They were so happy they danced through the home.”

From that point forward, the Building Homes program gradually expanded as Nordgaard and his then part-time staff member, Jane Otte, went to work matching willing partners among individual IDOC facilities and Habitat for Humanity affiliates. Otte, who became executive director of LSSI’s Prisoner and Family Ministry after Nordgaard’s retirement, explains, “We would also raise money to help pay for raw building materials as an incentive for Habitat affiliates to partner with us.”

“Our role is to build partnerships and connect people who are willing to work toward a common goal,” explains Otte. “This program is a terrific model of the best of what we as human beings can do and be together.”

Connecting People

Many Habit for Humanity affiliates use community volunteers, while others form prison partnerships, according to Christine Ta, prison partnership director for Habitat for Humanity International, based in Americus, Georgia.

“Our mission is to provide homes for people living in substandard housing worldwide,” declares Ta. “Whether in the free or the incarcerated world, we appreciate the hands, hearts and minds of every one of our volunteers.”

She adds, “Illinois was first to use inmates to create housing components.”

“The Building Homes program is one that uniquely works in Illinois,” asserts Stuart Barnes Jamieson, affiliate support manager for Habitat’s Midwest Resource Center. “[The program] is very strong in this state because, in part, it connects people with each other. There is an expectation and an opportunity for affiliates to bring volunteers and families to the prisons to meet the inmates who helped build their houses.”

Shelli Gresham brought her family to the Taylorville Correctional Center, where inmates had erected the frame of her house. The students gave the Greshams a tour of their house and presented the children with housewarming gifts they had made. Daughter Miranda received a table and son Kyle, a bookstand.

“Visiting the facility was daunting, but this experience helped me realize that even though these inmates had made serious mistakes, they now wanted to make something of their lives and rectify those mistakes,” shares Gresham. “By helping me, I was helping them.”

IDOC: Offering Opportunities for Skill Development

“A majority of inmates will be released, and their success depends, in part, on the preparation we provide them,” explains Sergio Molina, executive assistant to the director, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), in Springfield. “If we are going to use taxpayer dollars to incarcerate people, then we must give these individuals an opportunity to change their behavior or lifestyle. It is a responsibility we take on as a society.”

Most IDOC facilities offer vocational programming. At Taylorville, David Sharpe, a construction occupation instructor, teaches inmates the basics of drafting, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, masonry, painting and wallpapering in an eight-month course.

“What is neat about Building Homes is that it provides the hands-on training that we absolutely need to develop productive members of society,” says Sharpe. “You can only learn so much from reading and test taking. Until you put on the nail apron, and frame and carry walls, you can’t really get a feel for building a house.”

While following the progress of released inmates can prove difficult, Sharpe occasionally hears of the successes of past students. “Recently I was talking to a member of the Windy City affiliate, and he said a friend of mine said to say hello,” he says. “It was one of my former students. He was released a few months ago and now is helping to coordinate volunteers for the Habitat affiliate. That news made my day.”

Celebrating Partnership

A decade later and still going strong, the Building Homes: Rebuilding Lives program will soon celebrate its partnerships at two of the program’s participating prisons: Dixon Correctional Center in northern Illinois and Big Muddy Correctional Center in the southern part of the state. Later this year, a third gathering at IDOC’s headquarters in the state capital will top off the much-deserved recognition of all who have contributed to the accomplishments of this unique initiative. In the meantime, the program plans to reach a goal of 300 Habitat homes built by the end of this anniversary year, as well as look for other opportunities to grow.

“We would like to more fully utilize the potential for construction using the help of inmates,” says John Holmes, coordinator of the Building Homes program, “by developing a larger market and creating demand.”

Tyrone Marshall hopes to volunteer his services to Habitat for Humanity and other organizations from outside instead of inside prison walls.

“All of my life I have goofed around,” says Marshall. “Now, I just want to help as many people as I can.”