BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — To get to his job at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Toledo, Robert Carpenter often rode his bike the 2 miles from his apartment, or he took a bus that arrived more than an hour before it was time to clock in.
When Ed Irelan, justice ministry coordinator for the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, heard that the 68-year-old Carpenter was riding his bike to work, he decided to take action.
On July 24, during the St. Joseph’s Knights of Columbus Memorial Golf Outing at Fallen Timbers Fairways, Irelan handed Carpenter the keys to a 2008 Chrysler Sebring – a gift made possible by donations from Knights of Columbus members and Perrysburg Auto Mall owner Rich Cronin.
“When I first told him, he broke down crying,” Irelan said of Carpenter, who was released from the Chillicothe Correctional Institution in October 2019. “Robert’s story resonates with people. He’s a person with barriers, and we try as human beings to help people overcome those barriers.”
As a young man, Carpenter made some mistakes and ended up in prison for a while. He was out on parole and working to turn his life around, so he enrolled in classes at Owens Community College – not realizing that the school is in a different county. His parole conditions required him to stay in Lucas County.
“For that, he got eight years in prison,” Irelan said. “That’s our penal system.”
While in prison, Carpenter participated in a program called Welcome Home for Life, in which members of the Columbus Diocese work to reintegrate formerly incarcerated men into the community by providing them with support and connections to community resources.
His mentor, Tom Scheid, called Irelan when he found out that Carpenter would be released and moving back to his hometown of Toledo. Irelan and his peers in the Toledo Diocese helped find Carpenter an apartment, furniture, a phone and a job interview.
“I really like to cook,” said Carpenter, who cooked for large numbers of people while in prison and is hoping to move up into a chef’s position at the Renaissance.
When he returned to Toledo, Carpenter enrolled in the Helping Hands of St. Louis’ Opportunity Kitchen and was the best student in the class by far, Irelan said. So, when the deacon heard that Carpenter was riding his bike to work, he decided to take action. With help from Cronin, the $7,500 vehicle cost the diocese just $600 for tax and the title.
“He’s a nice man. I’ve spent a lot of time with him,” Irelan said of Carpenter. “He goes to church; he reads his Bible. He’s not a real young guy, but you get caught up in that system and it’s hard to get your life back together. To rehabilitate someone takes more than one person. It’s a worthwhile thing when we do something like this to help someone.”
Upon release, many former prisoners are out of touch with what’s going on in the world, with technology and even the language and customs. Plus, finding a job with a criminal record can seem a monumental task. For those who are released after decades in prison, having a mentor and resources in the community is vital.
“Robert is a responsible person. As long as he has people mentoring him, he will do well,” Irelan said.
As prison justice coordinator, Irelan was used to helping prisoners while they are inside, but not upon their reintegration into society. Now, as the area is flooded with low-level offenders who were released into the area because of COVID-19, the diocese gets phone calls from those who were dropped off with $60.00 and no place to live. The group brings furniture and food to those who are adjusting to life on the outside, but it’s not been easy. Last year, two people were living in their cars and another one in a cemetery.
Without help from many different church organizations, these newly released prisoners will have an opportunity to turn their lives around, Irelan said.
“If you’re in a church, this is a worthy cause,” he said. “It’s part of being Christ-like and giving back. Christ was always looking out for the poor and downtrodden – helping those who were less fortunate. This shows us what the community can do.”