MONTVILLE — Many inmates look forward to the day they are released from custody, back into the free world, but for others, release day arrives wrought with anxiety about what comes next.
For those with a felony record, finding jobs can be difficult, as can securing a place to live that doesn’t put them directly back into the circumstances that led them to jail in the first place.
Without a job, it can be difficult or impossible to fund even basic things such as transportation, food, and shelter.
One local man, who counts divine inspiration as a motivating factor, is determined to help those ending their incarceration by offering them a place to get back on their feet.
While the facility is still in its planning phase, Peter Sheff, Waldo County treasurer and pastor of Abundant Grace Church, says he doesn’t worry too much about where the funds for the project will come from.
“I believe this is one of those works that we’ve been called to do, so I don’t worry a whole lot about how we’re going to get the money,” he said. “I think if it’s from God and he gives you a vision then he’ll take care of everything else. So this is not a Peter Sheff thing, this is not even an Abundant Grace Church thing, which is the church I pastor at, this really is, I want it to be a God thing.”
Sheff is also working with Volunteers of America on the project, including Robyn Goff, program manager for the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, and Brian Sites, vice president of program operations: seniors, housing, corrections, and veterans.
Sites will be writing a grant proposal for the desired facility. Sheff said typically they will find out in the fall whether they have been approved for a grant, and if so, that the funds would likely become available in winter of 2020. Still, he said the project likely wouldn’t begin until that spring.
Sheff said the idea “started in [his] heart” a few years ago when six men from the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center began coming to his church. With time, Sheff came to know the men and “began to have a real understanding on why they’re there and some of the challenges they face when they get out,” he said.
Sheff and his wife purchased 52 acres in Montville one year ago and decided to donate two acres to his church, Abundant Grace, so that they would have a place to build the large facility.
“We really wanted to dedicate that land for God to use however he wanted to use it. So all of this is kind of coming together. So we’re donating two acres of the land to the church and then under the banner of the church this home will be,” he said.
When speaking with Waldo County Sheriff Jeffrey Trafton, Sheff learned of the nerves that plague many on the verge of release.
“The sheriff mentioned to me recently that when these guys are a few months away from getting out, they get very anxious, and there were a couple of reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that they, many times don’t have a home to go back to,” Sheff said. “If they go back to where they live before they’re going to possibly get back into the stuff that landed them there in the first place. They don’t have a lot of money, if any money, some of them don’t have a car, what are they going to do? Where are they going to live?”
The conversation led Sheff to begin thinking of how he could be of assistance and what form that assistance might take.
Plans for the home, which were drawn up for free by Plymouth Engineering, led Sheff to believe the price tag for the facility will land somewhere around $750,000, a sum of money he believes can only be raised by divine means.
“I can go get a house, get a mortgage and build it, I can’t build a $750,000 home. I don’t have the resources to do it. So if it happens it will be God. So those two thoughts, the guys having a need, my having a desire, combined for this particular vision right here,” he said.
Sheff said he knows there is sober living available in the Midcoast, but that sober living isn’t designed to help people get their feet back on the ground — something that will be the main focus of the planned facility, which Sheff has dubbed Transition House and Transformation.
“What we want to do is offer a six-month to one-year residency on a totally donation basis, nothing required from the guys to come. We will try to find them employment, we will transport them. We also have specific courses that we’re now designing, that I think will help these guys become better fathers, better husbands when they do get married…. We want to get them help if they still have addiction issues,” Sheff said.
While finding employment will be a focus, Sheff said he wants to help residents of the proposed facility find something they’re passionate about doing, rather than simply finding any available position.
“What we would want to do is find out over a period of time is what are the particular passions these guys have. I believe that God gives all of us a purpose, what’s my purpose, what’s my destiny, and that’s where we really find fulfillment, I feel, is when we really find something we feel we were born to do,” Sheff said.
“I want people to get up and say ‘wow, I get to go to work today doing what I enjoy doing.’ So one of the courses will be designed to let a guy look inside to see what his passions are,” Sheff said.
This will be accomplished by the many courses Sheff plans to offer residents, all of which will be faith-based programming, though Sheff said faith is not a requirement to participate in the program.
“We’re not going to discriminate against anybody,” he said.
Despite this, there will be a selection process for who is invited to stay at the residence, with those convicted of violent or sexual crimes ineligible. The men at the Reentry Center are already carefully chosen and Sheff said they will likely rely on that vetting process to find participants.
The estimated $750,000 price tag for the 6,000 square foot facility will include three floors, with the first floor dedicated to the 24-hour staff.
Sheff said he imagines an older staff, perhaps a mature couple living in the space on the base level, which also features an exercise room for the residents.
The second level of the home features a large open area with a general kitchen where some of the program’s courses can be taught. There are also bathrooms on this floor in addition to a private counseling area. A deck will be available, as well as a smoking shed.
Sheff said the shed would likely be built by the Amish and then have solar panels added so that the facility would be crediting back to Central Maine Power, an arrangement he already has at his own residence on the property.
The third and final level of the home will be the residential quarters for the residents, including 10 bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a large open area in the middle. Sheff said they are considering turning one of the bedrooms into a laundry room.
Seven of the acres on Sheff’s 52-acre property is clear land that Sheff said is essentially hay. In the future, he said he sees the residents creating a farm, much like the Waldo County Community Farm, which is tended by residents of the Reentry Center.
“I’m an organic farmer, organic certified farmer, so I think I want this to be as self-sustaining as we can possibly make it,” he said.. “The guys, as you know, already have a farm out there that they do so we want to duplicate that on our land. So we would grow most of our own vegetables, we could put up a small barn and have some animals, you know chickens and that kind of stuff, and the guys that are there that want to help with that can help.”
He also sees walking trails in the future of the property, so residents can get outside and into the quiet when they wish to.
“It’s a gorgeous location,” he said, adding that there is also less temptation to be had in rural areas rather than more populated areas. Sheff said currently his only neighbor is a mile away and on the other side of the road.
Sheff said he doesn’t anticipate much pushback, but that if anyone does have concerns he would like to meet them, and have them meet one or two of the men that would be living at the facility.
“I don’t think they’d be worried for long,” he said. “We’ll have full-time supervisors in the home and we’ll have very structured guidelines, that’s what these guys need is structure.”
Sheff said they are meeting with the planning commission in Montville, and will “jump through whatever hoops we have to jump through to make this happen.”
There will also be a yard sale on Route 3 in Liberty June 15, where Sheff hopes to raise “a little seed money” for the venture.
Sheff said he believes everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change.
“I think there’s other guys out there who did something stupid when they’re young. We all do that; some of us just didn’t get caught, but I think there’s people out there, they’ve spent time in jail, they know what it’s like, and when they hear the story about this they’re going to say ‘wow.’”
After speaking with Commissioner of Corrections Randy Liberty about the proposed endeavor, Sheff said he received an enthusiastic response, including an offer for a letter of endorsement.
“You want to cut the recidivism rate down this is the way to do it. Even with the reentry program, and they do better than most, but you know the general population, generally 70-80 percent you’re going back in jail within a few years. The Reentry Center does much better than that, and I think this would almost cut it out. It’s not big, it’s small, but who knows where it could go, I don’t know where it could go. If you had one of these in every county in Maine imagine, you know?” he said.
Sheff said the goal for the men when they leave the center after their six-month to one year stay is that they leave “whole” men.
“We want to help them to be whole. That’s another verse we use, that the Lord wants us to be whole in mind, body, and spirit, so that’s our goal. So that when they leave our center after six months or a year, they really feel like they’ve got their feet on the ground, that they’re whole people.”
Once completed, Sheff said they would be looking for a vehicle to allow them to transport residents to their jobs as needed.
Sheff said eventually he would love to see a women’s facility of the same kind built on the property, but worries there would be “a path between the two and I don’t want that to happen.”
Still, Sheff knows that there are plenty of women in need of a similar place to go post-release and says that that is an issue he may try to tackle next.
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org