By Sheila Pursglove
Bob VanSumeren has seen life from behind bars. And with the help of others, he’s turned his life around and gives back by helping others in similar straits.
A 2L student at Wayne State University Law School, his eventual goal is to represent people with addiction-related issues, including licensed professionals who face problems from substance abuse. He also would like to work with young people who find themselves in legal trouble. “I hope to one day help shape policy relating to both substance abuse and corrections practices,” he says.
His is an all-too familiar story. After the family broke up when he was in his teens, VanSumeren struggled, dropped out of school, became homeless, and fell prey to drugs and alcohol. “I was angry, at my parents, at God, at the universe — and because I thought the world was out to get me, I felt justified in lashing out,” he says. “I stopped caring about anything.”
A gas station robbery with a BB gun, followed by an unarmed robbery of a bank, landed him a minimum of 70 months in prison in 1999.
A few years into his sentence, VanSumeren realized the error of his thinking.
“The world had not been out to get me. Lots of people with drinking problems and family issues don’t do what I’d done,” he says. “I eventually accepted that I alone was responsible for my actions. I stopped blaming people.”
He found reading and education was an antidote to the ill-informed thinking that had served him so poorly. After his release, studying at Jackson College helped him feel safe, and he firmly believes higher education could drastically reduce offender recidivism. “With every class, I felt as though I was moving further from where I’d been,” he says.
He went on to earn his undergrad degree in comparative religion, sociology and psychology, a master’s degree in comparative religion, and a graduate certificate in spirituality, culture and health, all from Western Michigan University.
Then he headed to Wayne State University Law School, where he is now in his 2L year, concentrating on family law and criminal defense. He also is enrolled in the CADAS program, a graduate certificate in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies.
“The studies of law and religion are similar—both deal with texts and tradition,” he says. “In each field, interpretation is important. I suppose I’m continuing in law school what I began in the study of comparative religion — looking for truth.
“Being a part of the Wayne Law community has been a tremendous privilege,” he adds. “I enjoy the meaningful friendships with some of my fellow students.”
He also appreciates the benefits of being a mature student. “Being older, I don’t feel as though I’m a part of the frantic competitiveness,” he says. “My goals are to gain a solid legal education, to pass the bar and to practice law.
“When the stress of law school gets me down, it helps to know that I’m doing this for my family as much as for myself.”
In last summer’s 3-month internship at the Washtenaw County Public Defender Office, VanSumeren enjoyed being thrown into the court experience immediately. “I was able to represent clients, and because I could relate to them, my clients trusted me,” he says. “It was nice to put into practice some of what I’d learned during my first year of law school.”
VanSumeren credits his life turnaround to a couple of teachers, who were his mentors. “I wouldn’t be here without them,” he says.
He gave back by founding Jackson Transitions, providing support to those sentenced from Jackson County. The organization sends out a monthly newsletter and matches those who write back with community mentors.
As the newsletter’s editor, VanSumeren tries to pass along some of his own realizations. “To my audience I insist, ‘You can change, if you want to. Prison does not have to be the end of your story!’”
VanSumeren shares his own story by speaking at several events sponsored by the Jackson Area Civil Rights Awareness Association (JACRAA), including the recent Restorative Justice /Restorative CommunityForum. “Lately, we’ve been trying to educate the public about restorative justice practices,” he says. “We’re trying to show the public that alternatives exist.”
But his comeback wasn’t easy. After his release, VanSumeren spent years looking for stories of ex-cons who’d made it. “These stories were hard to find. At points I faltered, afraid that I might amount to nothing, despite my efforts,” he says.
He notes it takes two things to change: motivation and confidence. “Many people are motivated, but they lack confidence in their ability to create a better life. They look around and see people stuck in cycles,” he says. “I tell my story for those who are where I was, to show that change is possible.”
Many people with criminal records struggle to find a second chance, he adds. “We live with the nagging fear that no matter what we do, we will always carry the mark, even after time has been served. There needs to be a clearer way for ex-offenders to have their records sealed. It should be a matter for local judges, to seal the records of those who’ve demonstrated a commitment to lawfulness within their communities. The legislature should lift its restrictions. The public could demand this.”
At the Home of New Vision, a recovery resource center for people seeking help with addiction related issues, VanSumeren started a SMART recovery chapter. The program, built on evidence-based cognitive-behavioral principles, now holds five meetings weekly in two counties.
A lifelong Jackson resident, VanSumeren—whose hobbies include painting acrylic on canvas, playing the piano, and writing—continues to make his home there with his wife, a local art teacher, and two young sons. “The people of Jackson are honest and hard-working and I see a new generation of leaders emerging,” he says. “Like Detroit, the city is going through its own process of reinvention.”
Despite the long commute from his home in Jackson, VanSumeren enjoys spending time in the Motor City. “I like seeing the history, the development, the comeback,” he says.
“Detroit is a second-chance sort of place, and I’m a second-chance sort of guy.”
Second chance: Jackson native strives to help others
By Sheila Pursglove