Teaming with possibility: Archdiocesan ministry helps the formerly incarcerated build new lives

By Christina Gray

Her role as communications director for the Sisters of the Presentation in San Francisco keeps Jan Potts’ schedule tight.

But hers was an “easy yes” when invited to share her professional capabilities as a volunteer with Excell Network. Excell Network helps formerly incarcerated men and women rebuild productive, meaningful lives outside prison walls through educational scholarships, personal development, mentorship and community and peer support. The program was conceived two years ago by Julio Escobar, Restorative Justice coordinator for the Archdiocese’s Office of Human Life & Dignity.

“It’s a compelling story,” said Potts, one of six core volunteers of the program currently helping Escobar restore the dignity and self-determination of adults on parole or probation.

The success of Excell Network is made possible by each volunteer who offers distinct professional expertise to the program and its students. “The volunteers are basically our staff,” said Escobar. “If we had to pay for a graphic designer, for instance, or for other services, we would not have this project.”

Currently, there are 25 students in various stages of Excell Network program navigating a path to post-prison success.

Potts was assistant director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Francisco when she was invited by Escobar two years ago to serve as a volunteer in a communications capacity. She proofs every issue of Excell Network magazine, a compilation of student success stories produced three times a year and sent to supporter-subscribers. She also offers general communications counsel to Escobar and attends the monthly breakfasts held at St. Agnes Parish in San Francisco and St. Mark’s in Belmont that serve as a networking and fundraising platform for Excell Network.

Escobar said volunteers are the wind beneath the wings of the program. Their value comes not just from the services they provide, but from their personal calling to serve this population.

“It’s a matter of introducing volunteers to the work and letting them see what we are doing,” he said. “It’s almost a given that the reason they are here is that they connect with the mission of the project.”

Potts is vocal in her support for the principles of restorative justice.

“It is what we are called to do as Christians,” she said. It also produces more effective outcomes, she believes, than punitive justice.

“To help perpetrators of crime in any way, some people just can’t really understand that,” she said. “It’s because it is countercultural; but our faith is countercultural.”

A $22,500 annual grant from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development funds the scholarships offered to Excell Network students. Staff and infrastructure are funded through the Archdiocesan Annual Appeal.

Escobar said that at least twice that amount is needed each year, however, and is raised through the monthly breakfasts, Excell Network merchandise and personal donations. “If a student needs a suit for an interview or they are short on their rent, or gas, or they need money for food, we are able to do that through fundraising,” he said.

Eduardo Banos is a full-time webmaster for the Archdiocese’s communications department and also has skills as a graphic designer. He learned about the Excell Network by designing flyers for restorative justice programs.

Escobar approached Banos with the idea for a magazine for Excell Network but said he could not afford a graphic designer. “He asked me to help, and I said yes, let’s do it,” said Banos. On his own time, he lays out the content written by another volunteer, Deacon Dana Perrigan.

The success stories inside, Banos says, are “very impressive.”

“From my point of view, all these young people are getting a second chance,” he said. “Everyone deserves a second chance. We are a faith of redemption.”

Melissa Vlach, social action and digital media coordinator working full time for the Office of Human Life & Dignity, is a key team member whose involvement is funded by the appeal. She is a boots-on-the-ground organizer of the monthly breakfasts and produces video profiles of the students who share their stories. She also tracks the scholarship › recipients’ academics and interfaces with the archdiocesan finance department, which disperses the students’ stipends.

The stories told there are often “very difficult to hear,” she said.

It’s a revelation, she said, to see the individuals not just for the crimes they committed, but as human beings capable of change.

“It is rewarding to see that and see their growth,” said Vlach. “It can also be difficult to see when some of them have setbacks. It’s not always a clear journey forward.”

Volunteers have limited interaction with the students themselves. One of two exceptions is Frances Holmes, a volunteer who offers students free classes in personal health and nutrition each year.

Another exception is Vicky Salgado, Archdiocesan director of human resources. Several times a year, she offers Excell students classes on time management and goal setting.

Salgado’s rich background mentoring at-risk youth in her hometown of San Jose was well-known to Escobar, who approached her early to serve as an Excell Network volunteer.

Her father’s longtime work as a volunteer with Kairos, a Catholic prison ministry, has also helped her see the redemptive possibilities of those who have been incarcerated – and her own blessings.

“I had my own room, I went to Catholic schools, I had everything given to me,” she said.

“I am so grateful for all of the gifts God has bestowed on me,” said Salgado. “We all complain about what we don’t have. Some of these kids have been living in a room with 15 people.”

As a volunteer for the Excell Network, she feels able to return with gratitude what she has been given and uphold the Catholic belief in the value of every single human life. “There is possibility in every person,” she said. “When you believe in someone, when you give them a chance, and you trust in the fact that they can do it, anything is possible.” 

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.