Second chances offer a fresh start on a new life
Crow Wing County Board proclaims April Second Chance Month and hears from three people who benefited from a second chance.
BRAINERD — Second chances seem to be part of spring as a fresh start on a new beginning.
Brian Andrews, Mathew Merten and Charly Niesen said they all needed and got a second chance and they hope their experiences, their life stories, their new starts show there are second chances. Each worked through closed doors that can face people with criminal histories and addiction.
“The second chance is a big part of community,” Andrews said. “It’s a big part of my story.”
Andrews, executive director for Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, spoke to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, March 28. Lakes Area Restorative Justice is a nonprofit organization that provides a place where juveniles and young adult offenders meet with the people victimized by their crimes. It provides a safe place for the offender to be accountable and the victim to be heard as both work toward a resolution. The goal is to provide a second chance.
Niesen said she was a teenager in a home of addiction and with all the chaos that comes with that experience. She described herself as rebellious and acting out as she tried to find a place where she fit in. She skipped school. She ran away. She stole cars. From age 15 to 18, she lived in foster homes. Thriving there but making the same mistakes each time she got out. She said it wasn’t that she was a bad kid, but she was a kid who made bad choices.
“At age 18, my addiction started to spiral and I ended up getting felonies as an adult,” Niesen said.
She wanted to go to school to be a nurse, but her past was a barrier. Never having a job before, she went to the Workforce Center. She needed something to earn a paycheck, get her own place, rely on herself. Jiffy Lube took a chance and she built on it. She was introduced to the Meta 5 Minnesota Family Resiliency Program. Niesen said it is like a second chance program because it taught her all the life skills she didn’t know.
“I've been sober 17 years,” Niesen said.
She felt her calling was to work in a field helping others. Now she has a job at Essentia Health. She said she looked around her office space and thought of all the people who helped her create this future, including the probation officer who kept putting her in jail. She once asked why and the probation officer told her they saw a child with potential. Niesen said the people who helped her saw something she couldn’t see in herself.
The Lakes Area Restorative Justice Program is something Niesen said she wishes would have been an option when she was a teenager. Now she’s a volunteer and went back to school to be a licensed alcohol and drug counselor who is working on her bachelor’s degree in social work. Niesen said there are so many people along the way who helped her, including Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who she said was a key player during her youth.
“I’m proud of what you’ve become, how you pulled yourself up,” Franzen said.
Merten went through Lakes Area Restorative Justice a few years ago.
“My story starts with my home life,” Merten said, describing his father as an alcoholic and a mom who wasn’t very involved in his life. At a young age, Merten said he got into drugs and surrounded himself with the wrong people.
“And towards the end of that I was facing some very serious charges, drug possession and other felonies. I think in one day I was racking up about six felonies. And one of the police officers that was involved in my case, recommended me to LARJP.”
At first, Merten said he didn’t think much of the program. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get done with it.
“Then meeting Brian, and some of the other more important souls of the organization, I grew to like them, and I cared and so I finally gave them a chance,” Merten said. “And they gave me even a second chance to my second chance.”
Merten said because of that he had the ability to go into the military.
“I feel that the second chance is important for some of the people who went down the wrong path for the wrong reasons and have a lot more potential and the ability to do a lot more with their life. And so that's why I stand here supporting that and my friend and someone that I care about.”
It literally shattered the last pieces of who I thought I used to be.
County staff members and board members listened, leaning forward as the speakers talked.
Andrews said Minnesota recognizes that one-third of working age adults have a criminal background facing barriers to housing, work, education, acceptance.
Andrews said when he was on his path to recovery and to restore his family he was turned down 36 times for housing.
“That first yes transformed my life,” Andrews said. He also noted Crow Wing County Social Services saw more in him and encouraged him. “They wanted me to have a better life.”
Just as Niesen and Merten said of their experiences, Andrews said those county staff members saw more in him — they saw potential.
When people started to invest in him, Andrews said he also saw the value in his own life. Andrews got laughs from people in the boardroom when among those he thanked included the Crow Wing County Jail for allowing him to volunteer there and leave again when he was done. He said after speaking at a school, a seventh grader told him they usually didn’t pay attention to guest speakers but listened to him and said he was as much of a hero as anyone.
“It literally shattered the last pieces of who I thought I used to be,” Andrews said.
He said all those experiences he thought robbed his life are now what he can use to help someone else have a better future.
“What does this all add up to? It adds up to community,” Andrews said. “This is my home. This is our home. What are we going to do to make the best home possible for us and for the next generations? That’s the second chance proclamation.”
The Crow Wing County Board proclaimed April as Second Chance Month in the county.
Commissioner Jon Lubke said it isn’t a matter of making a bad person good, it’s a sick person who needs to get well.
“I really commend you, Brian, for being out there and doing what you do,” Lubke said. “You make a difference. Thank you for serving.”
Commissioner Steve Barrows said he’d go a step further to say two-thirds of people have been impacted by someone they know with addiction or criminal activity. The county pays one way or another with jail, community services and taking children away from families. The people who turn their lives around also have skills and abilities to be productive in society.
“And I think that's the important part of the message that you're bringing forward and that the others have brought forward,” Barrows said.
Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.