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Fund aiding former felons finds financial help, creates new program

Buoyed by banks and bolstered by boosters, a Charlottesville-based organization that provides low-interest loans to the once-incarcerated announced Wednesday that it has a new $500,000 loan fund available to help former felons address their finances.

The Fountain Fund also announced an emergency assistance program to help those struggling to keep their lives on course. The fund also recently began writing loans for former felons with entrepreneurial proposals.

“People returning to their communities after periods of incarceration face numerous financial challenges, and these loans help put them on a pathway to success,” said Erika Viccellio, executive director of the Fountain Fund. “This has long been an unmet need and the generosity of the banks and our supporters will allow us to help people who are working hard to make the most of a second chance.”

Wells Fargo Bank, Virginia National Bank and several local philanthropists and foundations used matching grant challenges to generate the $500,000 cache, officials said.

“We believe in running our banks locally and we have a local foundation that helps out the community,” said Joe Raichel, commercial banking leader for the regional branches of Wells Fargo.

“When Erika came to me with the Fountain Fund idea, I loved the idea that we can help people who are trying to help themselves and come back into society,” he said. “It’s a loan and they pay them back, which also builds their credit for the future. It’s not just handing money out, it’s helping someone with their future.”

The fund has approved $375,000 in loans since its creation in 2017. The loans pay off court fees, fines, restitution and other arrest and conviction-related obligations that gather interest during a sentence.

The loans are repaid at 5% interest.

The fund was initially started by former federal prosecutor and current University of Virginia Counsel Tim Heaphy after a conversation he had with a man whom he had prosecuted.

“I’m still the same person and I believe in the same things I did as a U.S. Attorney, which is creating a safer community,” Heaphy said after the announcement. “My goal as [a federal prosecutor] was to help improve safety in the community. Helping people when they have done their time and are back in the community helps keep the community safe as well. It’s just a continuation.”

According to Viccellio, people returning from jail find it difficult to get hired because of their convictions. Many are turned down for apartments because landlords often perform criminal background checks.

Some felony convictions, including many drug-related offenses, also make people ineligible for government-assisted housing, the federal SNAP program, also known as food stamps, and welfare programs.

“If a recently-released person can’t obtain these necessities, it’s more likely that they will return to prison,” Viccellio said.

Martize Tolbert, who started as a client with the fund and was recently appointed the fund’s client/partner navigator, said services are hard to get for felons.

“I went to prison at 19 and came out at 24, but I was still a 19-year-old kid,” he said after the announcement. “You don’t really grow into your age in a penitentiary setting. It’s not about growth, it’s about survival. I came out older but still thinking like a 19-year-old, and with few job skills.”

Tolbert said he found his drug-related charge prevented him from accessing many social programs that could have kept him financially afloat.

“I don’t think a lot of people know what you go through. You want to do something with your life, but everything is set up for you to fail,” he said.

Applying for jobs and apartments is also difficult, he said.

“It’s daunting when you’re applying for a job or a place to live and you see that box,” he said of applications that included questions about felony convictions. “That box tells you something about what’s going to happen. You can be offered a good job with good pay but when that background check comes along, they going to tell you ‘sorry’ and you have to move on.”

Tolbert worked with the Fountain Fund to pay his court-related costs, which had prevented him from getting a driver’s license, which in turn had prevented him from traveling to work and other court-required appointments.

Besides finding employment and job advancement after the loan, he worked as an intern with Charlottesville’s Home to Hope program to help those who have served time navigate available resources, provide peer support, and advocate for them.

“I’m looking forward to bringing my skills and knowledge [to the fund] to help others,” he said.

Some efforts are afoot in the state to systematically change some of these barriers: In 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe passed an executive order that prohibited asking about criminal convictions for state government jobs. And bills that would repeal a current state law that state law requires that an individual’s driver’s license be suspended if they don’t pay court dues have been moving forward during this General Assembly session.

And even with help from the Fountain Fund, car repairs and unexpected emergencies can threaten the precarious balance of life for someone returning from jail, fund officials said. That’s why clients George Kennedy and Brandi Herndon created the fund’s emergency assistance program.

“It’s easy for things to come up in life that throw you off your course,” Herndon said. “We want to help and we want people to be able to ask for help with dignity and respect.”

A client committee will review and approve applications for emergency assistance with grants up to $600 and will hold fundraisers to raise money for the emergency assistance fund.

“We are a community, and it’s important that we stand by one another, in good times and bad,” Herndon said.


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