Spotlight On … Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County

By Rob Montana
Tompkins Weekly

Photo Provided
Some of OAR of Tompkins County’s staff include, from left, Anita Peebles, Megan Hogan, Jessica Shepard, Executive Director Deb Dietrich and Suzanne Burnham.

Non-profit organizations are plentiful throughout Tompkins County, and make a big impact in our communities. Despite their contributions, area non-profits can sometimes go unnoticed or unknown. In an effort to shine a spotlight on those who are making a difference in our county, Tompkins Weekly will be showcasing these organizations on a regular basis.

This week we are highlighting Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County. Executive Director Deb Dietrich said the organization’s motto is “protecting civil liberties.” To learn more about the organization, we asked her about the what the organization does to make an impact in the community, as well as how others could lend OAR a hand.

Tompkins Weekly: What is your mission?
Deb Dietrich: Our mission is to advocate for and assist inmates and former inmates of the Tompkins County Jail and their friends and families.

TW: How do you fulfill that mission?
DD: Staff go to the jail four days a week to conduct assigned counsel intakes, complete bail applications and assist inmates with other requests. We have markedly increased our efforts in assisting individuals’ transition home over the past five years. Reentry is a complex field with numerous agencies providing pieces of services to assist reentry. OAR works to coordinate these different services. However, the lack of safe and affordable housing for individuals returning home from the Tompkins County Jail has been one of the most serious barriers to successful reentry.

OAR, with the financial assistance of the county, recently purchased a four-bedroom home that we are renovating to provide downtown housing for four clients coming home – Endeavor House. We hope to have the house up and running this fall.

In addition, over the past two years, OAR has created a new program under the leadership of Benay Rubenstein – College Initiative Upstate – that guides previously incarcerated individuals through the application, preparation and admittance procedures to higher education. This summer CIU held its first College Prep class and had 12 graduates, all of whom will be attending TC3 this fall or spring.

Another new project is in collaboration with the Rescue Mission and Challenge Workforce Solutions. This project is a comprehensive employment training and placement program, funded by the NYS Department of Criminal Justice Services and will serve 50 parolees each year for five years, returning home from state prison. OAR now has a satellite program in Schuyler County which is staffed by a part-time client service worker who assists incarcerated individuals with assigned counsel intakes and other applications for assistance.

OAR has an annual fundraising letter campaign and this year we will be seeking funding for the range of new projects,focusing on Endeavor House.

TW: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces?
DD: The biggest challenge facing OAR is to continue to provide the range of services with a relatively small staff – about seven full-time employees.

TW: What is something people do not know about your organization?
DD: Many people don’t know that OAR is one of the few agencies, nationwide that advocates for inmates in local jails. And we’ve been doing so for over 40 years.

TW: How can people best support your mission?
DD: People can support our mission through checking our Facebook page for upcoming Endeavor House work parties, the United Way’s volunteer portal for other volunteer opportunities or by making a financial contribution, including the option of donating stock. We are also looking for other properties to develop to house those returning home.
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To connect with OAR of Tompkins County, visit its website at OARTompkins.org or its Facebook page at Facebook.com/OARTompkinsCounty.