Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry is proud of their latest honor by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where they received a ‘Neighborhood Spotlight’ award in December 2023! Cecelia Whitfield, CEO and founder of Use What You’ve Got Keeping Families Connected, Inc. Prison Ministry (UWYGM), attributes her long-standing relationship with IUPUI as one of the contributing factors in her organization’s continued success. UWYGM, founded in 1988, is a nonprofit focused on providing transportation for families and friends traveling to visit their incarcerated loved ones residing in state, federal, and juvenile correctional facilities in Indiana. The organization is founded on the belief that “children and families of the incarcerated are often the forgotten, hidden victims in the criminal justice system.”
About Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry
In 1988, Whitfield experienced heartbreak when a close family member was incarcerated and sentenced to prison. Transportation was not offered to and from any of the prisons at that time. During her visits, Whitfield would notice families struggling financially to visit their relatives and received requests to help them get back and forth. Whitfield decided to “step out on faith” and consider starting her own transportation business since she was already providing that service as an individual.
She first asked her mother’s opinion about whether she was suitable to start a business given her educational limitations. Whitfield’s mother said, “Oh, just use what you’ve got!” which became the name of her organization. That began her 35-year journey of transporting families from the Indianapolis area statewide to 18 male and female adult correctional facilities, federal prisons and juvenile correctional facilities. Moreover, federal inmates often have families that travel across the United States and sometimes abroad to visit their loved ones and rely on transportation services provided by UWYGM. Transportation is open to all families in need, includes wheelchair access, and fees are based on the ability to pay.
In 1993, UWYGM expanded their services by holding a Christmas party to serve children and families of the incarcerated. A year later, the organization launched a women’s and men’s retreat at the French Lick Resort to provide family members of the incarcerated with a chance to get away for a weekend, out of their environment and offer them life skill classes. The organization also offers counseling and advocacy programs that provide family support through home visits, crisis intervention, a Speaker’s Bureau, referral services, and more.
The impact on families
UWYGM understands that incarceration can lead to the breakdown of the family bond. Whitfield cited a research study titled “The Effects of Prison Visitation on Offender Recidivism” by the Minnesota Department of Corrections that found, “Any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations, which reflects the fact that visitation generally had a greater impact on revocations.”
The Minnesota Department of Corrections found that their research was in congruence with previous research studies that show visiting the incarcerated can aid in a positive reentry into the community and that more regular visits can reduce the probability of a prisoner re-offending.
According to the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council Re-Entry Policy Study Commission Report, “approximately 5,000 men and women are released into Marion County from prisons and jails each year.” About half had reoffended within three years. The report also found, “The cost of returning so many offenders to prison is more than $83 million. To reduce the recidivism rate by one percent would involve keeping a “mere” 46 offenders from returning to prison.” A UWYGM fact sheet concludes, “It’s about keeping families connected, improving public safety, and saving money.”
IUPUI partnership history
UWYGM’s partnership with IUPUI began in 2006 when Whitfield met Teresa Bennett, former director of the IUPUI Solution Center* and current assistant vice chancellor in the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement. Whitfield contacted the Solution Center for help in recruiting interns and staff for UWYGM.
Through the Solution Center, Whitfield was introduced to IUPUI PhD student Brandon Sanders for a one-year internship. As a graduate intern, Sanders helped UWYGM build their mission statement, goals, and objectives. He also helped establish the organization’s metrics. “He did it all!” said Whitfield. “He was amazing!”
In 2007, the Solution Center introduced Whitfield to Stacy Harding-March, a professional grant writer. “Every grant she wrote for us, we received,” Whitfield stated. Due to the success of her grant writing, the organization was able to hire a family advocate and a program director. Most recently, Harding-March wrote a grant proposal for UWYGM to the Indianapolis Foundation for $149,000 that was awarded. “That’s how good she is. She is the best!” Whitfield exclaimed.
Silvia Garcia, also formerly of the Solution Center and presently the director of research and assessment in the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement, has served on UWYGM’s board of directors since 2015. Garcia helped the organization re-write and update their strategic plan and create an organization chart that is still in use.
Dr. Roger Jarjoura, former criminology professor and Community Engagement Fellow in the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI, became a UWYGM board member in 2014 and served as the board chair. In 2017, Dr. Jarjoura helped to create a fundraising plan and wrote successful grants for UWYGM. Additionally, Jarjoura used data to support findings that the organization reduces crime. Whitfield accredited Garcia and Jarjoura for expanding their staffing and the purchase of an additional bus.
In 2017, Thomas Brinks joined the board. Brinks was retired from IUPUI and served on the board of IU Health during that time. Brinks is currently the president and CEO at Indiana University Health Occupational Services. Through his UWYGM board membership, Brinks recruited service-learning interns who were working on their master’s degree at the IU School of Social Work at IUPUI. These interns created policies as well as business and fundraising plans. “We wouldn’t have been able to create the different plans and policies without our service-learning students,” Whitfield said.
Throughout this partnership, Whitfield has worked with Teresa Bennett and Dr. Khaula Murtadha, associate vice chancellor in the Office of Community Engagement, on various projects and training experiences.
“IUPUI has been a blessing to us!” Whitfield exclaimed. “The need was great for someone who had no idea about not-for profit or businesses. I spent a lot of time at the Solution Center,” she emphasized. Through her relationship with IUPUI, Whitfield has learned the importance of always being prepared, to have open communication, that research should be implemented with diverse community leaders, and that “IUPUI has amazing, knowledgeable students.”
Whitfield has also shown her appreciation by recognizing Garcia and Bennett at the UWYGM Annual Awards Dinner. “Just her presence as a vice chancellor was wonderful and really was awesome!” Whitfield expressed.
IUPUI student supports non-violence program
In 2023, UWYGM received a $200,000 Elevation Grant from the Indianapolis Foundation to work with Black men ages 18-35 to reduce violence. The grant also allowed UWYGM to hire IUPUI student Natasha Dennison to work as a data specialist for a one-year, part-time internship. Dennison began her studies at IUPUI in August 2023 after receiving a full scholarship through the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust Scholar program.
“As a general studies/liberal arts major with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences coupled with a minor in business, I am completely grateful for the opportunity to plunge deeper into human behavior, interactions with social structures, and the systems that impact society outside of the classroom,” Dennison said. “Through this internship with Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry I aim to gain valuable knowledge and experiences that will influence the remainder of my educational journey and ultimately shape a career choice. Equipped with both lived and learned knowledge and experiences alongside an IUPUI education advocacy can be effective.”
Dennison will work with the UWYGM case workers and project director, creating data, surveys, and more.
“Ms. Cecelia is an amazing woman,” Dennison exclaimed. “To quote the founder of the Indiana Prison Writers Workshop (IPWW), whom I met in the Religion Behind Bars class last week, ‘she is a quiet force!'”
“I am very excited to have one of the awesome partnerships with IUPUI,” said Whitfield. “It’s a blessing to have this awesome partnership with one of the greatest schools I know of, and in my area, Lockefied Gardens.” Whitfield grew up in Lockefield Gardens, just across from IUPUI, at one point a vibrant community for African Americans in the city, as reported by WISHTV News (February 2023).
Inspired to help UWYGM further their work? UWYGM is looking to hire a social work or psychology student working on their master’s degree to serve as a case manager to support the Elevation Grant’s non-violence program. For students interested in working with Use What You’ve Got Keeping Families Connected, Inc. Prison Ministry, please email your resume to email@example.com. This position is also posted in Handshake as Job #8567293.
Annual Celebration Breakfast invite
UWYGM invites you to help families stay connected by attending their Annual Celebration Breakfast on April 25 at 7:45 a.m. at Ivy Tech Community College, 2535 North Capitol Avenue, Indianapolis. The speaker will be Mr. Rick Williams. This event attracts leaders from across the city and is a fantastic opportunity to get to know like-minded individuals. This breakfast is free for anyone to attend, and sponsorship packages are available.
UWYGM is also looking for vendors who want to share resources in mental health, addiction, housing, employment, and education at the breakfast. If you are interested in attending this event or being a vendor, please email firstname.lastname@example.org by April 12, 2024.
* The Solution Center, created in 2004, connected IUPUI’s faculty and students to local businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations to create useful partnerships. In 2014, the Solution Center was merged with other IUPUI departments to create the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement.
IUPUI has a long history of engagement in the community, dating back to our establishment in 1969. We are one of the initial campuses to receive the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement in 2006, and it was renewed in 2015. We have received numerous other awards and recognitions over the years for our work in and with communities to make a difference through teaching, research, and service to improve the quality of life in Indianapolis and beyond.