GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Local activists have created a nonprofit meant to support people recently released from incarceration readjust to life in Alachua County.
The nonprofit, aptly named Released, was founded by activist Emily Westerholm, who also serves as its director.
Westerholm said she is currently a volunteer at the Alachua County Jail and additionally runs therapeutic groups for recently released people. She said she has done similar work in Virginia for the past 10 years, including as a substance abuse counselor. She moved to Alachua County a year and a half ago.
As someone who was previously incarcerated, she said it’s important for people recently released from incarceration to have a physical brick-and-mortar location where they can get help with their essential needs, both tangible and intangible.
She said there is currently no such place in Alachua County.
“Making sure they know how to get identification, insurance, navigation, housing, employment, support and training,” Westerholm said. “And then also the therapeutic side of things.”
Released is currently seeking funding and support from Alachua County. The Alachua County Commission meeting where Released was to be discussed was moved from March to April. Westerholm said the meeting may be pushed back again.
She said she welcomes the extra time because it gives Released more opportunity to reach out with preexisting advocacy organizations in the community, and the partnership between Released and local organizations that have already been doing similar work is vital.
“The driving force of my interest is engaging people in Gainesville that have already been doing the work,” Westerholm said. “And people that are interested in doing the work that maybe haven’t had the space to do it, because there was no physical space for people coming home that’s just dedicated.”
Leigh Scott is a colleague of Westerholm and is a member of two of these community partners, GRACE Marketplace and Community Spring, which respectively focus on homelessness and economic justice. He was also previously incarcerated.
Scott said that while the tangible aspects of the program are important, he believes the intangible aspects, like therapy, are often overlooked in social work. He said having Released be run by formerly incarcerated people themselves helps establish trust with the people it helps, which is key to the success of the therapeutic aspect of the program.
“There is a recognition, there’s a trust,” Scott said. “It takes a while to build those relationships. You’re kind of trying to hold the torch down the road for someone and say, ‘Listen, there’s a path, there’s a path to success and healing.’”
In documents submitted by Released to Alachua County, the nonprofit’s efforts will include a GED and literacy program, harm reduction and substance abuse education, career and life skill development and mental health and wellness counseling.
According to the documents, Released is requesting $520,980 for a pilot program. $375,434 would go to staff members, of which Westerholm expects there will be six.
The documents state the program is expected to aid 400 to 600 unique individuals in its first year of operation and 2,400 to 3,600 individuals overall when accounting for people who return to the program more than once.
According to the documents, the program aims to begin operations between fall 2023 and winter 2024.