Lake County seeks volunteers to serve at an Open Table for ex-offenders.

Lake County is hoping that the Open Table program can help people getting out of jail and prison to straighten out their lives. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

TAVARES – It’s called Open Table, and the program is now looking to recruit, and train, as many community volunteers as possible.
And it’s being launched in Lake County as the first such program in the state of Florida.
“We are very excited about this opportunity to move forward toward the launching of the Tables in Lake County,” said Charysse S. Covington, a coordinator for the ongoing effort.
Open Table, though, has nothing to do with dining, restaurants or the culinary arts. It’s a program aimed mainly at preventing convicted felons from becoming the latest statistics in recidivism.
Lake County’s rather unique Open Table model is being launched this year with an aim toward ex-offenders who have just been released from jail or prison, and, weighted down by a criminal record that closes a lot of doors in their face, are struggling to put their lives back together.
It’s Lake County’s Probation Services Division that’s creating this local version of Open Table, a program that got its start in Arizona. The local model encourages churches to partner with probation programs, and literally set up “tables” that ex-offenders can come to, where they can meet with community leaders who will work with them to figure out a long term plan to get their lives back on track. In the meantime, the program is actively recruiting the most vital element: volunteers.
Open Table Training Day will be held on Saturday, Jan. 14 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Tavares First United Methodist Church, 600 W. Lanthe St., Tavares.
The goal is ambitious, and long term. This first Probation Department Open Table aims to create a law enforcement community model that, if successful, might mean that Florida could eventually become a teaching center for other communities to see how this work is done.
Covington said the program hopes to recruit volunteers willing to help a segment of society that is very much in need of assistance, and she said the volunteers have a great opportunity to demonstrate that their “commitment and enthusiasm is such an inspiration. I know the lives that will be touched and changed by this movement will be a blessing — not only to your new brothers and sisters, but also to everyone whose lives they come in contact with.”
She added that the first volunteer training day is expected to be well attended, because of the positive response they’ve received so far to the introduction of Open Table in Lake County.
“We are anticipating 100 percent attendance by the table members,” she said.
The original Open Table started a few years ago, when a homeless man who had been suffering from depression began attending Paradise Valley United Methodist, a church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. A mission group from the church tried to help the man, who was living at a local shelter. But the church members quickly discovered that putting a temporary roof over someone’s head and giving them meals did nothing to bring lasting stability to their troubled lives.
The church then opted to take a different approach, and brought together leaders from the parish with the larger community, and they asked their homeless friend to decide what he wanted out of life – what kind of job, what kind of home. Then they worked with him to develop a plan to get there. The Open Table members gathered around him and spent countless hours working on his plan, and in 18 months he was economically stable. The church felt it had discovered a model for helping lift people out of poverty – by employing successful community volunteers who could work with the troubled individuals on creating a long range method of success.
The Lake County Department of Conservation and Compliance’s Probation Services Division learned about the program, and began looking into it as a model for helping inmates who were coming out of prison — and who are all too often denied opportunities for housing, employment, and credit because of their criminal record.
Prior to learning about Open Table, the Probation Services Division tried to assist ex-offenders by hosting Re-Entry Fairs, which bring together social service agencies willing to assist convicted felons returning to the community following their incarceration.
Then last summer, Probation Services Division began exploring the possibility of creating a local, Lake County version of Open Table, by encouraging churches to partner with probation programs to set up tables that help ex-offenders get reintegrated into society.
The Partners Investing in People Committee– which helped coordinate some of the past the Re-Entry fairs— and the Probation Services Division formally introduced the concept on June 15 in Leesburg, making Lake County the first in Florida to implement this program.
The volunteer training day on Jan. 14 will include a light mid-morning snack, and a working luncheon will be served. The program is asking participants to provide a “love offering,” or donation, to help offset these costs.
To learn more, email Covington at charyssecovington@theopentable.org.

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