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News / Clark County News

Vancouver nonprofit offers a solid Foundation for those leaving prison, teens trying to avoid it

Founder working with Vancouver Housing Authority to create housing for people exiting prisons

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 29, 2024, 6:04am
7 Photos
Teens play video games after an Insight to Foresight class Wednesday at The Foundation nonprofit in Vancouver.
Teens play video games after an Insight to Foresight class Wednesday at The Foundation nonprofit in Vancouver. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Lester Griffin was released from prison in 2017, a lot had changed in Vancouver over the nine years he was incarcerated. Had his city always been this busy, or had he grown too used to prison life?

Familiar streets had new buildings and the waterfront was full of construction. His kids, whom he left as elementary school students, were now high-schoolers.

But his friends and family helped him through the change, and he soon started a successful construction company. He knows how difficult that transition could have been if he didn’t have a support system. He’s seen people with no one to turn to fall into homelessness and drugs after being released from prison.

So he started The Foundation last year, a Vancouver nonprofit that serves as a support system for both people coming out of prison and teenagers trying to avoid prison and pursue their goals.

You Can Help

To donate or volunteer for The Foundation, go to www.thefoundationwa.org/support-us online.

Get Help

If you or someone you know needs help after exiting prison, contact The Foundation at lester@thefoundationwa.org or go to www.thefoundationwa.org/services-2 online.

The teen center is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 3 to 10 p.m. Friday through Saturday at 2818 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

He created the kind of support he wishes he had as a kid growing up in Vancouver.

“This was what we wanted,” he said, gesturing to the rooms of video games, desks and barber stations. “We wanted to be able to come to a place like this.”

Now, only a year after he started The Foundation, he’s working with the Vancouver Housing Authority to open the Restored Transitional Complex, which will house as many as 14 people exiting prison.

“At the end of the day, there are individuals that come home from prison who want to change and need help to change,” said Griffin, 42. “And with the right opportunities, they can help the community.”

Nowhere to go

Griffin sat with Robert Hampton, 51, and Anthony Powers, 47, in the prison yard of Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, talking about the mistakes they made. Powers and Hampton were in prison for murder, Griffin for a burglary in which someone was shot.

Where had it all gone wrong?

They used to be boys, running around Vancouver, playing basketball and football at Bagley Park. But when things went wrong in their lives — when friends joined gangs and sold drugs — they felt like they had no one to turn to.

Powers, now the board president of The Foundation, said he felt like the people he went to for help treated him like a child, even though he was dealing with adult issues.

“They weren’t really able to reach us in a way to where we’d be willing to listen to them because, a lot of times, when they talked to us, they spoke down to us,” Powers said.

Without anyone paying attention to Hampton, he began stealing and selling drugs while his mom was asleep on the couch after a long shift. Growing up in poverty, with nowhere to go after school and no mentors keeping him on the right path, he gravitated to the streets, Hampton said.

“There was really no accountability,” he said. “So what we wanted to do was get in front of it and start helping kids go to school, start helping kids if they don’t have food, but also be someone that they can talk to and be transparent with.”

So Griffin created a space he would have wanted to go to as a teenager, full of the latest video games, pingpong tables, foosball, snacks and comfy couches.

The room next door looks like a salon, with barber stands and a manicure station, where the teenagers can get free haircuts and have their nails done.

The final room is full of desks and a projector. This is where mental health specialists teach coping skills, police officers explain to teenagers how to interact with law enforcement and people can teach others about their culture. Hampton, The Foundation’s prison community navigator, calls in from prison and tells the teenagers what it’s like being incarcerated and how to avoid it.

Griffin teaches his Insight to Foresight class Wednesdays, helping students identify their goals and plan how they will achieve them.

Many of the teenagers who come to those classes aren’t thinking past tomorrow, Griffin said, so he encourages them to write about their future.

Powers said if someone had asked him to do that when he was a teen, it might have changed his life.

“I always wished that there was somebody who could reach me because even when I was committing crimes, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t even want to be doing this stuff,’ ” Powers said. “If The Foundation were to exist back then … I believe 100 percent I would have never went to prison.”

Conversations with victims

In its classroom, The Foundation holds Restorative Justice Circles, where victims, perpetrators and people who have never been affected by crime tell their stories.

“You put those three people together, and everybody’s telling their side of that story. … As a human being, naturally, it’s going to do something to you,” Griffin said.

Powers knows how powerful those conversations can be. While he was in prison, his childhood best friend — the girl he thought of as a sister — was murdered by the father of her child: Hampton.

In the thick of Powers’ grief, he was forced to face the man who killed his friend when Hampton landed in prison with him.

One day, Hampton came up to Powers and acknowledged how much pain he caused him. Powers could have fought him or walked away, he said, but he did something even more difficult: He tried to forgive him. Having a conversation with Hampton helped him heal, Powers said.

So instead of hating him, Powers decided he would be a mentor to Hampton.

While incarcerated, Powers founded a behavioral health program called The Redemption Project to reduce violence in the prison. Hampton now teaches violence prevention in the prison.

Support coming out

It’s hard to know where to begin once a person is released from prison. Suddenly, they’re a member of their old society again and need to find employment and housing. But that’s not easy with a criminal record.

People released from incarceration are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the average person, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. More than two-thirds of them will be arrested within the first three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many of them, especially women, will experience post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine.

The Foundation helps people released from prison navigate the transition back to normal life by helping them find employment, housing, and mental and physical health care. It also offers counseling to families affected by incarceration and support from a community of people who are also going through that transition.

Kenneth Kirkland, who volunteers for The Foundation, said that’s the kind of support he needed when he was released from incarceration. Griffin helped him when he felt alone after coming home, Kirkland said.

“If you have that support group, there’s a lot of things you can do, as opposed to not having it, and you’re stuck in a trance,” he said.

Housing is one of the most important parts of finding stability after being released from prison, Griffin said, but it’s also one of the hardest resources to lock down.

People can be denied housing if a landlord believes their criminal history makes them dangerous to other tenants, but that means ex-offenders often end up living on the streets, where they are more likely to reoffend.

This summer, the Vancouver Housing Authority will transform a building it owns in the Fourth Plain Village neighborhood into transitional housing for people exiting prison. The Foundation will work with them to find permanent housing, employment and healing during the time they live there.

“That’ll get them motivated because when you come home, when you go try to get that first job and you don’t get it, now you’re under stress and all the anxiety begins,” Kirkland said.

After they complete the program, the tenants will receive a certificate they can hand to their next landlord, explaining the process they went through.

Griffin hopes The Foundation can continue to grow over the next several years with support from the local community.

He acknowledges he has made poor choices and doesn’t expect forgiveness. But he hopes people understand he’s trying to prevent more crimes, like the ones he committed, from happening in Vancouver.

“I’ve made the community feel unsafe on multiple occasions, but now, I’m on the opposite side of that,” he said. “I honestly feel that there are so many lives that The Foundation is going to help and touch.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.