TROY — Annie and Irv Fellows of Troy have long sought to make a difference in the world. For more than 30 years, Irv and Annie worked for the government, attempting to bring their passion for helping people through that venue.
“When I retired, Annie and I made a commitment that we would seek other ways to help people in need,” Irv said.
Then, about 4 years ago, Irv met Orleans County Restorative Justice Center’s Executive Director, Barbara Morrow during an effort to set up a Newport area warming shelter.
“She asked me if I would like to be on a ‘Circles of Support and Accountability’, called CoSA for short,” he said. “I initially had no idea what that was, but I found the concept challenging and well aligned with my spiritual principles. At first, I had little confidence that I could contribute anything, but, as time went by, I realized my perspective and life experiences could be supportive. Annie saw that I was finding CoSAs rewarding, and she decided to do volunteer as well.”
A CoSA is a team of usually three volunteers who, with a trained facilitator, work with someone called a “core member,” a person reentering the community from incarceration, for a year.
The team works with the person to figure out what problems they face and how they might address those problems. The team and the core member come up with a plan for the future and identify skills the core member has or could develop that will help them overcome present or future barriers. The CoSA group also acts as a source of accountability and a sounding board.
The Fellows said there are many rewards and frustrations to volunteering as a CoSA team member, but that the rewards are worth it.
“I’ve become aware of many bureaucratic barriers a person faces when they are trying to successfully reenter the local work environment,” Irv said. “For instance, a person needs to have their social security card to get a job. Seems like a simple thing, unless their card has been lost and they have no transportation. Obtaining a new copy of that card often involves seeking a copy of a long-misplaced birth certificate and a long bus ride to Montpelier. The lack of a driver’s license can also be a barrier. Without public transportation in the area, a person trying to get back on his or her feet often has to settle for a minimum wage job within walking distance. They often end up living on a financial knife’s edge, and even a small unexpected expense can make them vulnerable to frustration and depression, and the temptation to return to old ways.”
With that said, Irv Fellows said there are beautiful successes, often helped along by a core member with a good attitude about the process and support their receiving.
It can happen, the Fellows say, that amazing things take place in a person’s life through the process.
“My first CoSA involved a person who had alcohol and anger issues. When he started, he was adrift. He did not know how to handle money, he was isolated and he had very few prospects for employment. He worked very hard to avoid alcohol and completed training to control his anger. We taught him how to handle his money, and he listened to our advice. Soon, he began to bloom. He gained confidence in himself and his ability to control his own life. We sought people willing to give him a chance as an employee, and his work ethic soon convinced them he was a valuable worker. It has been more than a year since his CoSA ended, and his hard work continues to bring him success.”
Irv and Annie have served on a number of CoSA teams, and they say each one is a very different experience. What isn’t different, they said, is the caliber of volunteers they share this work with.
“There is a real reward in getting to know other CoSA volunteers,” Irv Fellows said. “I find them to be remarkable people.”
The Orleans County Restorative Justice Center’s Executive Director, Barbara Morrow, shares Fellow’s outlook on the volunteers, and welcomes interested people to find out how they can take part too.
“We will have a Circles of Support and Accountability training in Lyndonville May 3rd and 4th,” Morrow said.
This is required of all CoSA volunteers, has received rave reviews, and is a great orientation to work with our clients. We invite people to attend even if they’re not sure yet that they would volunteer, but are thinking about it.”