Ypsilanti After gaining freedom, ex-prisoners help Habitat MPRI partnered with Habitat for Humanity about 18 months ago

By James Dickson

AnnArbor.com

YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) -- Jarrett McCormick has paid his debt to society. His prison term is over and his six months of volunteering with the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative are met.

So one would blame McCormick if he'd just hit snooze on his alarm clock and stayed home Monday.

But instead, McCormick faced down the cold and a bus trip to assist at a home site in Ypsilanti. The fact that his sweat helped put a local family one day closer to homeownership made it all worthwhile, he said.

McCormick and five other ex-convicts working with the MPRI formed the backbone of the 11-person crew at the house on Hull, where Habitat for Humanity-Huron Valley is preparing a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house to serve as a home for a local family.

The workday, supported by a $400 MLK Day mini-grant from the Michigan Community Service Commission, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the Michigan Campus Compact, and the Volunteer Centers of Michigan, is a partnership between the county branch of the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative and Habitat for Humanity-Huron Valley.

That partnership formed about 18 months ago, said Mary King, head of the Washtenaw County office of the MPRI. King said it works for the benefit of both parties: MPRI supplies the bodies Habitat needs, while Habitat welcomes the former prisoners with open arms and gives them a chance to add not only volunteer hours but construction experience to their resumes.

"A lot of places want to hold your past against you," McCormick said. "With Habitat, they welcome you in, and they really need your help."

McCormick has been out of the prison system since late June. When he's not volunteering, his focus is on school at the University of Phoenix, where he is studying business administration, and with finding work. He's served two different terms in prison, one for armed robbery and one for accosting a child for immoral purposes, prison records show.

"All my time now is school, school, school," he said, "and between that and this, I don't have much time to sit around wondering where the jobs are. That will come."

The crew put in a full day, arriving at 8 a.m. and working through 4 p.m., with a lunch of Meijer fried chicken and mac-and-cheese served at noon, courtesy of MPRI.

They didn't finish -- that's still about two months off -- but they were making good progress, said crew leader Steve Denmen of Habitat for Humanity. Before being hired on full-time at Habitat in July, he'd been in the local construction trade for years and had even done two years of volunteering for the local Habitat. He said he'll stay at Habitat as long as he can, and cited the amateur nature of his crews as part of the reason he enjoys his job.

"I don't care if we don't get everything done," Denmen said. "I don't care if we have to go back and do something over. My only objective is to have a great day of work and that everyone goes home safe."

A great day of work means a crew where everyone is focused on the task at hand and shows up willing to take direction. When it becomes the kind of crew that eats lunch together, like the group today, Denmen knows it'll be a great day of work.

He likened his job as crew leader to being baseball manager on a team where everyone switches positions each game -- and you never know the exact expertise on any given crew. As a few of the men started recounting their difficulties in the job market post-prison, Denmen instructed the guys to take down his phone number if they ever need a job reference.

"Everyone deserves a second and even a third chance," Denmen said. "I'm just happy it's us who can give it to them."

Habitat-Huron Valley turned over 11 homes to Washtenaw County families last year, which benefited 10 adults and 18 children.

More than 100 adults and 200 children have been placed into some 90 Habitat-Huron Valley homes since 1990. In 2009, residents of local Habitat homes paid more than $200,000 in property taxes, according to Habitat.

No family has been chosen for the Hull home yet, and whichever family is chosen won't just be handed the keys -- ownership of a Habitat home comes with certain requirements.

First of all, the homes are purchased, not given away, though the mortgage rate is zero percent. Household income must fall above certain levels and below others, and all adults are required to put 300 hours of "sweat equity" either into their own home or by volunteering to rehab other Habitat properties. The home comes with a $500 down payment, along with mandatory classes on the legal issues of home ownership, financial management, and home maintenance.

Published: Tue, Jan 25, 2011

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