An ex-felon is trying to bring hope to newly released prisoners in the Las Vegas Valley by providing tools to allow them to break free from a disorderly cycle to help them help themselves.
Jon Ponder, founder and chief executive of Hope for Prisoners, found himself in and out of prison a few years ago. He had his first taste of confinement at the tender age of 12, which lead to a life of serving time for various crimes and charges that became more and more severe.
When he faced a sentence in a maximum-security federal penitentiary, he decided that not only did he have enough, but that he was going to change his life, become a stand-up leader within his community, and help with those with similar struggles.
Ponder, 36 at the time, vowed to help those like him re-enter society, a task more difficult than most realize. Many people lack of proper identification when exiting prison. The vast majority have no income, and some don’t even have a place to live.
“Coming in and out of the system for all that time I made a lot of mistakes trying to get acclimated back into the community,” Ponder said. “My passion in life right now is to help individuals who are navigating those same challenges I had to overcome and help [offenders] get up to the next level of life.”
After serving his time in federal prison, Ponder moved back to Las Vegas and made the dream he dreamt in a 10-by 8-jail cell into a reality.
Ponder founded Hope for Prisoners, a nonprofit organization that helps men and women ex-offenders change their lives before they’re in too deep. If you rehabilitate people within the community and their families, Ponder said, they can become stand up leaders in their own community.
For 20-year-old Jazlynn Vergara, Ponder has become her angel.
“I was stealing cars and robbing people,” said Vergara. Vergara, who was arrested five times within a four-month span, still faces 1-to-5 years in prison. She admits to doubting the weeklong program, but quickly changed her mind after meeting Ponder.
“I came to the orientation and just hearing Jon speak just made me get this drive of wanting to be here,” she said
Vergara now who mentors others with the hopes to one day becoming an inspiration before they go down the same path as she did.
After a weeklong workshop, the graduates are assigned a mentor for 18 months to help guide them on their journey back into the community as they search for jobs, rebuild relationships and, most important, stay sober and out of trouble.
Ponder has built a team of experts who each tackle different areas of life. There are workshops for leadership, obtaining a GED certificate, employment referral and parenting skills, among others. Ponder then involved Metro Police officers to become mentors to the ex-convicts. The program has produced nearly 550 graduates.
Ponder also wants the workshop participants to be reflective of how they came to this crossroads in their lives, having created a segment within his workshop titled, “Concurring the Enemies on the Inner Me.”
“I spent my entire life fighting the enemies on the outside,” he said. “The police department, parole and probation officers, all these guys were enemies. When I concurred the ‘enemies’ in the ‘inner me,’ the enemies on the outside disappeared.”
Of the several officers in attendance, Metro Officer Cynthia Williams knows firsthand just how important this organization is to offenders because she watched as a member of her own family struggled while she was growing up.
“When I was seven years-old my dad was arrested for burglary,” said Williams. Now Williams is a mentor herself.
“It is a blessing and it is something that we have needed for a very long time,” Williams said. “Re-entry is a very important issue.” CL