Back in 1961, the Service League of San Mateo County existed to ensure county jail inmates had the right to religious services.
Now, 50 years later, the league provides services to people across 35 religions and assists the families of the incarcerated, providing everything from financial advice to child care in an effort to assist recently released inmates transition back in to society through a variety of residential and outpatient programs.
For the past four years, the Service League has expanded exponentially under the guidance of Mike Nevin, a former county supervisor, Daly City mayor and San Francisco police officer.
Nevin has taken advantage of the current economy to expand what he calls the best service the league provides — Hope Houses. In 1990, the Service League opened the first Hope House, a residential program lasting anywhere from six months to a year that helps people transition successfully back into society after they have been released from jail. In the four years Nevin has been executive director, he has purchased four properties. There are now six Hope Houses offering separate residential treatment to men and women.
“We’ve been able to buy four properties,” said Nevin. “We’ve been lucky, because we’ve been able to buy during the down market.”
While the Hope Houses offer residential treatment following incarceration, the league also provides assistance to those still in jail.
“We have programs specifically for women, to help with alcohol and drug addiction,” said Nevin. “We have people working in the jail message center, serving as liaisons. There are two libraries, one recreational and one legal, for prisoners. We help with Project Read, people get their credentials through us to go in.”
The list of services available to those who seek out such assistance is long. While Nevin’s position as executive director has him spending a significant chunk of his time fundraising and applying for grants, he enjoys interacting with the people his organization serves.
“I love politics and public life,” he said, “but I get a real personal satisfaction when I look into the faces of our clients. But people have to be willing. We’re all victims of ourselves, but when we’re able to help someone, there’s tremendous satisfaction in that. Best job I’ve had.”
Nicole Fregon is one such client. A former drug user, she spent time in jail before moving into one of the league’s Hope House, in July 2008. She stayed until January 2009, taking time to explore who she was and who she wanted to be.
“It was an incredible chance to see who I was outside of being on drugs,” said Fregon. “And now I get to give back.”
Fregon, a success story who knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of the league’s assistance, is in the perfect position to give back. She now operates the front desk at the Service League’s office, helping with the message center and talking to the families of the incarcerated and those recently released from jail.
Her time at the Hope House was anything but easy. Up at 6 a.m. every day, she and the other residents would exercise and attend two classes before breaking for lunch. Afternoons were spent attending two more classes, followed by dinner and a little free time before a group meeting and time for journaling and reflection.
“We really try to teach practical skills,” said Nevin. “Each Thursday, there’s a cooking class. We got a grant for a teaching kitchen. We bring in Stanford professors to teach some of the classes, and they just love it. We got a grant to build a state-of-the-art gym. We really focus on treating the whole person.”
“It’s really great for women and their families,” Fregon said of the programs offered not just at the Hope House, but also to those seeking help from the Service League in general.
“The idea is to show them their worth as a human being,” he said. “The recidivism rate in California is around 75 percent, but our success rate is 70 percent the other way. We have 70 percent that don’t end up back in jail.”
One of the most important factors in maintaining such positive numbers is helping clients develop positive relationships with each other. The women, in particular, support each other after leaving jail. A group of Hope House alumni meets each week to offer advice and camaraderie to one another.
“If you give people not a handout, but a hand, they begin to see their own value,” said Nevin. “You give them an opportunity to feel their feelings.”