FRESNO, Calif. (Mennonite Mission Network) – John* used to be afraid to participate in community beyond the four walls of his home. A registered sex offender whose parole ended last summer, John is cautious to avoid situations where he might be tempted to re-offend, but this cautiousness also led him to avoid making friends and participating in the world outside his home. John’s life changed when he became a part of the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program in Fresno, Calif.
Once a week for two and a half years, John has met with a community of volunteers who serve as mentors and friends for him. These volunteers have walked alongside John, providing support and accountability as he seeks to re-create his life.
Today, John is still careful, but he’s found healthy ways to re-engage society. He serves as a volunteer in several circles for other offenders and has begun volunteering alongside Mennonite Voluntary Service participants at a local food pantry.
Formed as a ministry of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University, COSA has been walking alongside sex offenders like John as they seek change and rehabilitation since 2007. Today, with their funding in jeopardy, it’s unclear how COSA will continue.
Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower, director of COSA in Fresno, first encountered COSA (a rehabilitation model that is commonly used throughout Canada) when she attended a training on the model in 2006. At a career transition point and seeking direction, Ruth-Heffelbower decided to attend on a whim and found herself deeply drawn to the model. Upon her return to Fresno, Ruth-Heffelbower applied for and received a grant from the California Department of Corrections, and COSA was born.
Mennonite Voluntary Service participant Jordan Zickafoose, of Lima (Ohio) Mennonite Church, has been volunteering with the COSA program for two years. MVS, one of Mennonite Mission Network’s Christian service programs, invites adults like Zickafoose to spend one to two years serving and living in community in locations around the country.
Zickafoose is a part of several circles, and through his work, he says he has learned much and seen many people change.
“When I tell people what I do, sometimes they wonder why I’m involved with this work. They think sex offenders can’t change, but I believe everyone deserves a chance to be rehabilitated and to change,” said Zickafoose.
In the three years COSA has been operating, none of the offenders involved in circles have re-offended.
“The key to this model is community. Community offers our core members (offenders) a place to learn social skills, to feel accepted, to be open and honest, and to find accountability and support. Isolation is a very dangerous place,” said Ruth-Heffelbower.
However, despite this positive track record, the grant from the California Department of Corrections has run out, and COSA is running on reserve funds from the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies and volunteer labor. They are actively pursuing new grants.
And COSA is not just changing the lives of core members; it’s impacting volunteers as well.
“We often get to hear core members talk about how COSA has affected them or been instrumental in their lives, but volunteers also talk about their learnings as well. They are not only there to provide support and accountability, but the core members are giving back to us, too,” said Zickafoose.
One long-term core member, Mike*, died tragically in a car accident one year ago. Zickafoose and other members of the circle helped to plan Mike’s funeral, and Zickafoose wrote and sang a song commemorating his life. Several members shared stories of ways that Mike’s life and his witness to a person’s ability to change served as an inspiration to them. He taught them lessons of patience, unconditional love, and joy.
“There are so many places where we have seen incredible progress,” said Ruth-Heffelbower. “And often, relationships become so strong the groups continue to meet even when it seems the need is not as great anymore.”
The COSA program in Fresno is the largest of its kind in the United States. Recently, Religion and Ethics News Weekly, a PBS original program, filmed a feature on COSA in Fresno and several of its circles.
*Last name withheld for confidentiality.