Scott McLean stood at a microphone in a wooded area of Burns Park in North Little Rock last Saturday, kidding a group of former inmates and their relatives.
"Somebody's going to invite me to a family reunion sometime, right?"
He joined everyone in hearty laughter, and continued.
"It is a family reunion -- all you guys are family," McLean said. " ... All you guys do so much, and we can't do this without the support and help of the volunteers and the donors that we've had -- can't do it.
"And for 18 years, this has been my life, and what joy it's been to see the transformation truly take place."
McLean and those gathered were celebrating not just their graduation from Pathway to Freedom, the faith-based re-entry and rehabilitation program he leads, but the culmination of months of work at a new way of life.
In honor of his longtime work in the prison system and with Pathway to Freedom, McLean will be honored Tuesday with the Marie Interfaith Civic Leadership Award, given annually to recognize those whose work addresses community issues in Arkansas.
BIRTH OF A MINISTRY
McLean had come to Arkansas from Kansas five years before, where he'd witnessed men changing their lives under the re-entry program he managed there.
"When I saw all these men in blue singing praises to God and excited about transformation in their lives and hearing them talk, there was a difference," McLean said. "You just sensed such a presence and such a difference in the lives of these men and the sincerity of their hearts."
His wife, pregnant with their second child, was in labor when McLean got the phone call notifying him that paperwork needed to be signed right away in order for the new nonprofit's incorporation to be completed by the deadline.
"While my wife was in labor at the hospital, as I'm sitting there, I'm in the process of giving birth to a new ministry," McLean recalled.
Sept. 26 marked Pathway to Freedom's seventh anniversary, and it's going strong with between 200 and 220 inmates in the program at any given time. And while the recidivism rate within three years among the general inmate population in Arkansas is 56 percent, according to McLean, the rate dips to between 15 percent and 20 percent for those in the Pathway to Freedom program.
One of the most recent efforts to raise money was a Cajun food event with music held Sept. 18 in downtown Little Rock. Raising money for the organization is a challenge, McLean said, but one that he feels called to take on.
"It's hard enough trying to raise money for the program and for men in prison," McLean said. "It's not like kids. I mean, [with] kids, you can raise the money. You talk about dealing with what some people would say is the lowest of the low when you're dealing in the prison system. It's something that people push to the side. 'We don't want to talk about that,' because of the crimes that they've committed or the victims they've created.
"So it's something that I sense God has called me to [do], to get into the trenches and to compel men to change their lives and to make a difference in their lives and to be productive on this earth, and to look forward to a brighter future. So that compels things because, I tell you what, every soul counts."
MARIE SPITZBERG'S LEGACY
The eponymous award honoring Marie Spitzberg was established by her sons, Irving Spitzberg Jr. and Paul Spitzberg. According to former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown, a member of the steering committee and the board for the award, Marie Spitzberg was an activist for decades alongside her husband, Dr. Irving Spitzberg, and the award carries on her legacy.
"We like to honor people in the community who have been involved in civic achievements of one sort or the other -- education, health, doing something about the opioid epidemic, renovating a community," Brown said. "We pick those aspects that really champion her when she was alive."
The Rev. Steve Copley, executive director of Interfaith Arkansas and a fellow board member, served with McLean on a re-entry task force and said Marie Spitzberg and McLean have taken similar approaches to their work.
"[Marie] believed that we all needed to work together as a community in order to make our community better," Copley said. "And [McLean] functions that way. [He's] willing to reach out to all kinds of people and engage with various parts of the community in order to make our community better ... and the whole community benefits from those who get to participate."
"The whole idea [of Pathway to Freedom] is to give somebody a fresh start, and to have the business community aware of the fact that [they're] a great resource, these people who come through the program and exit the prison system," said Brown, who factored in faith as a major component of the importance of McLean's work.
This year's reception theme is "Re-entry From Prison: Offering Hope," and will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Little Rock's Temple B'nai Israel. A panel discussion on the topic will be held that includes those involved in the re-entry process, including T.J. West, a Pathway to Freedom graduate and McLean's re-entry liaison.
SURROUNDED BY FAMILY
Dennis Warren, 52, was among the men gathered Sept. 29 in Burns Park to celebrate freedom as a graduate of the program, and he was surrounded by family.
"Our mother taught us to be there for one another," said his sister Teresa Johnson. "So our hearts are so full today."
Out of prison for a year Friday after spending the previous seven incarcerated on drug possession charges, Warren was surrounded by his three sisters, a brother, a nephew and his daughter.
Warren said earning a second chance at freedom was hard work but meant "so much" to him.
"You have to be responsible," Warren said. "You have to walk the walk ... by the grace of God, one day at a time."
"Mom would say, 'Show people that you know how to live,'" said his sister Era Bankston, chiming in on remembering their late mother's words. "And that's what he's doing right now."
Paul Wallin, 54, said serving seven years of a 12-year sentence for drug charges was all part of God's plan.
Addicted to drugs and alcohol for 35 years, Wallin said he'd reached the end of his rope, and one morning seven years ago he got down on his knees and prayed.
"My prayer to God was, 'Whatever you have to do, I'm not going to try to do it on my own,'" he said. "Nine hours later, I was in jail looking at a 12-year sentence."
He expressed the wish that life on the outside was more like the faith expressed in the Pathway to Freedom program.
"Where I come from, everybody plays church," Wallin said. "To be in contact with the actual true godly man changed my life, because I just thought it was all just show."
Wallin, unlike Warren, was not joined by relatives at the Pathway to Freedom graduation. Coming from a broken home and on his own by the age of 14, Wallin said his parents and relatives would always expect him to be "the person I used to be."
Instead, Wallin's two mentors -- Johnny Biggs, 81, and Mike Young, 61, both of whom attend Geyer Springs Baptist Church with Wallin -- were seated next to and across from him at the gathering.
"There's a before Christ and after Christ transformation you see in these guys," Biggs said. "They talk about before and after, and it's just incredible."
"Scott's Superman," Young said. "If this wasn't a call, he would've surely bailed out a long time ago."
"They just changed my life, and I will be forever indebted to Scott McLean and the guys that play the parts in [the program]," Wallin said of the staff, volunteers and other inmates. "God put them on a path, and he did that for a reason. I thank them every day for blessing me."
More information about Pathway to Freedom is available at ptfprison.org. More information about the Marie Spitzberg Interfaith Civic Leadership Award is available at themarie.org.
Religion on 10/06/2018
CORRECTION: Inner-Change Freedom Initiative in Arkansas never received federal funding. An earlier version of this story misstated the initiative’s source of funding.
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