By the CSG Justice Center Staff
Ron Tijerina entered Ohio state prison in 1991, sentenced to serve 14 to 25 years. His wife Cathy struggled to pay the bills, raise their two sons, and keep the family together. “We realized early on there were no supports to help Ron stay connected to the kids,” Cathy said. “And there were no institutions to help Ron and I stay committed to each other.”
But Ron and Cathy worked hard to support one another, and to keep Ron involved in his children’s lives. They then began working to support other families, too. In 1993, they started a program called Keeping FAITH (Families and Inmates Together in Harmony), through which Ron mentored men in his prison while Cathy worked with their families outside.
Over the years, Ron’s group of mentees grew, and Cathy, while continuing to work with the families of incarcerated men, also started an after-school program for at-risk youth. In 2000, Keeping FAITH became the more-formalized RIDGE Project, which received in 2002 its first state grant to continue broadening its operations. Ron was released from prison in 2006.
The RIDGE Project is today divided into an adult division, a workforce development division, and a youth division. The adult programming begins inside the prison; fathers whose children are younger than 22 and who are within six months from release are eligible. The curriculum is currently available in 17 of 28 Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) institutions, five community-based corrections facilities, and two county jails; Ron frequently visits these institutions, working with men there and spreading the word about RIDGE.
The RIDGE Project’s adult division is based on the TYRO program. “Tyro,” said Cathy, “is a Latin word that means apprentice, novice—someone learning something new, a young warrior.” She continued: “We chose to name our program TYRO because we’re training fathers to become warriors for their children’s futures and their legacies. We also stress that life is a continuous improvement plan, so we encourage lifelong learning, and TYRO conveys both concepts in one word.”
The TYRO Dads course is the first course taken by men accepted into the RIDGE Project. The curriculum stresses accepting responsibility for one’s actions and leading one’s life with honor and integrity. Men who complete the 36-hour course become “TYROs”; they can then enter the TYRO alumni network, through which they continue to support each other during the reentry process and also mentor men going through the TYRO Dads course.
After finishing the TYRO Dads course a person also becomes eligible for other RIDGE Project training, including classes in couples communication and a host of workforce development classes, such as Job Ethics and Culinary Arts. The RIDGE Project also offers programming for young people. For instance, its Rites of Passage youth program, which promotes the benefits of sexual abstinence and living a healthy life free from drugs and alcohol, is currently offered in seven schools and one juvenile detention center.
The RIDGE Project has received numerous awards, including Impact Awards from the ODRC in 2013 and 2014. A study from the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion determined that for every $1 invested in a TYRO Dads graduate the economy sees a $3.12 return within one year, largely because of averted incarceration costs and the additional tax income TYRO graduates generate. “After five years,” the report’s authors write, “the initial investment yields approximately $15.59 in economic impact—a 1,559 percent return on investment.”
The RIDGE Project also received a 2014 Second Chance Act (SCA) Mentoring grant, which it’s using to expand its work with young fathers. Ron Tijerina recently attended one of the National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC) Reentry Training Summits in New York City to learn more about organizing his SCA grant program and maximizing its effectiveness.
These two-day NRRC summits convene representatives from jurisdictions and organizations awarded the same type of Bureau of Justice Assistance grant—an approach that allows for more targeted and germane training and also encourages collaboration between grantees. The NRRC hosted two summits in June, the first for SCA Mentoring grantees, which Tijerina attended, and the second for both SCA Juvenile Demonstration and Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP) grantees.
Ron Tijerina is excited about the possibilities for expanding the RIDGE Project’s work with young fathers. “These guys are between 18 and 24, and they have unique and intensified case management needs,” Ron said. “They’re parents, but in many ways they’re still transitioning into adulthood themselves.”