The Next Chapter of The First 72+
This summer marks seven years since The First 72+ opened up its first transitional house at 2917 Perdido Street. It also marks the end of my time as Co-Executive Director, and the beginning of our next chapter, under the leadership of my friends and colleagues, Chad Sanders and Pastor Tyrone Smith!
But before I take off, I’d like to use my last email to y’all remembering where The First 72+ has been and how far we have come as an organization. (My intention for this email was much pithier than it ended up, turns out we have been a lot of places, and although my husband correctly advised that this email is approaching manifesto length, all I can say is: thanks in advance for entertaining my nostalgia . . .)
So, I actually wasn’t at the ribbon cutting ceremony for our first house, because I was in Los Angeles starting my last year of law school. During the ceremony one of our co-founders and board members, Jack Dilosa, held up his iPhone with me on Facetime.
What makes this memory so special, is that last month, when we officially broke ground on our next transitional house, one of our co-founders, Calvin Duncan, was watching the groundbreaking live on Facebook. He was streaming in from Portland, Oregon, where, just one day earlier, he finished his first year of law school.
The entire First 72+ team, along with supporters do a ceremonial dirt toss at our May 4th groundbreaking ceremony for our next transitional house.
No one who knows Calvin would be surprised to know that Calvin’s first call after his last final examination (actually as the exam was uploading), was to me and our friend Robert Jones. Calvin was checking in on the status of a post-conviction application for a friend of theirs still at Angola.
Because that really is the spirit of The First 72+, and the motto we have lived by every day since we welcomed home our first resident: “Us helping us.”
Seven years ago, Ben Smith, Pastor Tyrone Smith, Blair Boutte, Jack Dilosa, Norris Henderson, and Calvin Duncan, came together to turn an old bail bonds office into a home. A place where people in need of a chance—not just a second chance, but a real chance—could get healthy.
To get the help they need to address barriers on every level – legal discrimination, social stigma, physical and emotional trauma, and, their own history of bad and unhealthy decision making.
This group came together to create a place where, regardless of your past, today, you could make the decision to do better, to get better, to be better. To get out, and stay out. Not just for the sake of yourself, but the sake of your family, your community, your neighborhood, and for the sake of our city.
The First 72+ is where you can come to get the help you need to get started.
But that help doesn’t come without expectation and accountability. Around the office we refer to this as “paying it forward”.
The First 72+ is, at its core, a community of people who first showed up to get help, but then turned right back around to be there for the people they grew up with, the people they did time with. As Ben Smith would say, to be there for “the next man up.”
And that is the one thing that is sorely missing from our work today.
Before The First 72+ had a house, a logo and a sign on our roof, or a team of 16, I think a lot of people will agree that the most valuable reentry resource in New Orleans was Ben’s van. He would pick you up, drive you to see your P.O., get your birth certificate, social security card, and state ID. He’d get you a haircut and a fresh set of clothes so you could see your family for the first time feeling confident. Then he’d give you a job working on the back of his iconic Mardi Gras-colored grill trucks, for his business, Da Grill.
People often ask why we decided to call ourselves “The First 72+,” and no one explained it better than Ben:
We’re talking about guys that been locked up 15, 20, 25, 40 years some of them. The Purpose of this place is to give them a place to get started. That’s why the name of this place is The First 72+ because those first 72 hours are so crucial. After that, we plan for the long term-- getting out and staying out.
Together over the last seven years, we have welcomed home and housed over 176 people. We have supported another 1,400 people through our reentry coaching program, our case management services, our peer support groups, our financial life skills classes, our public benefits clinic, our technology life skills classes, the Rising Foundations small business incubator program, the Pay it Forward Communal Loan Fund, and our Reentry Legal Clinic.
During a global pandemic, as businesses and nonprofits were forced into layoffs and closures, The First 72+ expanded. When the “Stay at Home” orders came down, we responded by adding new homes to our program, quadrupling our capacity in a matter of weeks. A year ago we were only able to house 6 men at a time in one house, today we are able to house 30 people at a time in a network of 6 houses. And this spring, we started construction on our next transitional house, which when complete will add 8 additional beds to our program.
As COVID outbreaks plagued our prisons and jails, we recruited pro-bono attorneys to represent our incarcerated friends and loved ones.
In partnership with the Family Independence Initiative, Stand Together Foundation, and the Center for Employment Opportunities, we raised over $1million and dispensed every dollar to our clients and their families to help them stay afloat.
The COVID-19 shutdown put a glaring focus on “the digital divide,” and in response we bought and distributed computers and tablets and taught our clients how to get online, to stay connected.
When a vaccine became available we spent hundreds of hours phone banking to make sure our community had the facts, and knew where they could get access to lifesaving medicine.
Being a part of The First 72+ family has shown me the true power of community, of what is possible when people don’t just show up for you, but stay connected to you, through good times and bad. Being trusted to lead The First 72+ has been a true honor—one of the most challenging, but also the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am immeasurably proud of what we have accomplished as an organization, but I also know we have potential that hasn’t even yet been tapped. And that is why, although it is bitterly painful to imagine a better office than 2915 Perdido Street, I am elated to be transitioning onto our Board of Directors of The First 72+, and passing the torch to Chad and Pastor Tyrone.
Pastor Tyrone has been helping people rebuild their lives for decades. Countless people can credit Pastor Tyrone, and the red bench in front of our office, with the moment they decided their life was worth it, and that it was worth it to keep going. Although Pastor Tyrone has a few years on me, working with him these last seven years has felt a bit like we were growing up together. Any time we learned new tricks or new ways of considering things we would call each other, almost giddy about being able to do something more for someone than just give up on them. In the earliest stages of The First 72+ we were challenged beyond what either of us ever expected. But he never wavered. For Pastor Tyrone, reentry has never just been a job, or a field of study, it was his calling, his purpose.
Chad came to The First 72+ more qualified for my job than I ever was. And I really mean that. When we added Chad’s headshot to our website we almost immediately looked more professional as an organization, and every time he represents us, it only gets better. But what I’ve most enjoyed about working with Chad is his ability to teach and share what he knows, in a way that makes people feel empowered, instead of talked down to. On any given day, it is equally likely that you’ll find Chad in a suit, sitting in front of a legislative committee presenting on the perils of reentry, as it is that you’ll find him sitting on the curb with his arm around a client who is ready to succumb to those perils, reminding them to never, ever, ever, give up hope.
From left to right, our incoming Co-Executive Director, Chad Sanders, our incoming Co-Executive Director, Pastor Tyrone Smith, and out outgoing Co-Executive Director, Kelly Orians, at the groundbreaking ceremony for our new transitional house.
An inherent part of growth is change. And for an organization built on helping people grow to achieve their greatest potential, I can only look upon this change with excitement and gratitude. Thank you, to all y'all who have had our backs over the years, who have donated your time and your money and your housewares to keep us going, who have purchased plates at our fish frys, who have shared our messages on social media, who have stopped saying ‘inmate’ and ‘convict’ and instead started referring to people who have been to prison, as people.
With your support, The First 72+ has accomplished more over the last seven years than we ever expected, and I can’t wait to see what we do next.