It has come through the first year of the pandemic bent but not broken. And now, Offender Aid & Restoration (OAR) of Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church is looking to the future while continuing to focus on its core mission.
“We are celebrating OAR participants and their journey. We want to celebrate the stories, the lives and the contributions,” said Alejandra Santaolalla, the social-safety-net organization’s board chair, at the 13th annual “Second Chance Breakfast” on April 22.
For the second year in a row, the event was moved online due to public-health conditions, but the organization itself did not shut down, even during the worst of the pandemic.
“The OAR team managed to keep the office open without pause or interruption,” said board member Shakir Cannon-Moye.
But there has been institutional pain, nonetheless. Funding shortfalls led to half the full-time staff being laid off as the pandemic’s impact worsened.
“We thought, ‘How do we best meet the needs [of clients], how to we reposition our resources?” Cannon-Moye said of financial decision-making. “It wasn’t an easy choice.”
The end result, he said, was a “laser-focused” effort to help those coming out of incarceration, and those participating in other OAR programs.
A key component of the organization’s efforts is an intensive-re-entry program, which supports those emerging from incarceration with assistance on everything from finding a home and job to maintaining connections to health-care providers. But there are other efforts, like “Project Connection,” an initiative that works to keep families in touch with a loved one who is in jail or prison.
“We are an organization that does work both upstream and downstream,” said executive director Elizabeth Jones Valderrama.
Jones Valderrama said the current national emphasis on revamping everything from education to the criminal-justice system is vital. Those systems, she said, “were designed to fail.”
“We need to lift up the actual voices and lives [of all],” she said, to create a “more collective, more joyful society.”
In doing so, “we all win,” Jones Valderrama said.
OAR was founded in 1974 by a coalition within the local faith community. In addition to its other efforts, the organization also supervises court-ordered volunteer service in the region.
The April 21 event also included scenes showing the organization’s success in transforming lives (in most cases, to address privacy concerns, those scenes were re-created, but represented actual stories from the local area).