Saturday, November 13, 2004


Lee Seleni attends services at the Pacific Islander United Methodist Church in Palolo. Seleni is a resident in the church's First Life After Prison program.

Freedom to serve

The First Life After Prison program
brings ex-cons back into the community
with faith and outreach

Christ has a Polynesian face in the stained-glass window of the Pacific Islander United Methodist Church in Palolo, and so did the men who filled the back pews last Sunday.

On Wednesday evening they joined in the praise and worship session at Word of Life Christian Center in Kakaako.

Going to church is part of their fitness regimen, the "first lap ... when you set your pace in any race," said Matt Taufetee, 36, who heads the faith-based program to integrate former prison inmates back into the community.

"We prepare them for the temptations and rejections, and we impart the word of God to them," said Taufetee, who used the sports imagery when he founded First Life After Prison -- First LAP -- in 2001.

A lay minister at the church where his father, the Rev. Faaagi Taufetee, is pastor, he secured $43,000 in grants from the national United Methodist Church Commission on Religion and Race for the first three years of operation. Word of Life made a $6,000 contribution this year, he said.

More than 70 released felons have "graduated" from the six-month program, which mixes Bible study and soul-searching talk-story sessions with job-hunting, community service and attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

There are 14 current residents at the dormitory on the Palolo church property. Bodybuilding equipment lines the lanai of the former preschool building. Its location on a hillside, a little apart from the crowded residential area, brings an atmosphere of haven.

The goal for the residents is to get back into their families and the working world without falling back into the substance abuse and bad company of their past life.

Taufetee believes that can only happen by strengthening their spiritual side: "We tell them you've got to take responsibility for what you did and move forward. The only way we can make it is through the love of God."

Taufetee said, "We are fortunate to have the support of the Palolo community." The program has limits that reflect Palolo Neighborhood Board concerns: no sex offenders, no one with serious violence on his record. "We meet with probation officers and communicate with the state parole authorities, and recently with the federal prisons," he said.

Prisoners facing release may apply for the program. It is open to all ethnic groups, but most of the current members are Samoan, as is Taufetee.

Iose Mafatau and his son Jonah Iose, 3, get dressed at First LAP before attending services. "My son loves coming here," said Mafatau, who is allowed to spend time with his children at the resident house. Mafatau has completed the six-month program and plans on starting his own construction business soon.

"This program brought my life back. It saved my life," said Iose Mafatau. "It brought my family back together. It gets better every day." The 41-year-old father of three is in the fourth month of the program.

"I spend weekends with my kids," he said. "I grab one kid at a time to go to church with me." Sunday was 3-year-old Jonah's turn.

Mafatau is fortunate. He has a full-time construction job.

"Job hunting is hard when you have to fill in the question, 'Have you ever been convicted,'" said Taufetee. "Some of them have never worked before."

Kelemete Usuvale, 46, on probation after serving time in a federal prison, said, "I hope the Lord will answer my prayer and help me find a decent job."

It wasn't a paid job, but it was heavy-lifting work under the heading of community service Monday for Usuvale, Sean Lee, Robert McDonald, Lomiga Olive and Doug Araujo, the latter two LAP graduates and staff members. Along with an Oahu Community Correctional Center crew of 10 inmates, they unloaded cases of federal surplus canned food from a Matson container and stacked them in the St. James Food Pantry in Palolo.

"The LAP guys help us every week," said Pat Kaslausky, director of the Catholic outreach center. "They pick up donations at schools and other churches. I don't know what we would do without them" because wrestling cartons of donated food is a strain for the female volunteers at the food pantry, she said.

Kaslausky expects to distribute more than 1,000 boxes to needy people Thanksgiving week, with the LAP manpower doing much of the deliveries.

"It makes you feel good giving out to the community," said Usuvale.

"It's a way to be giving back," said Olive. He said the meals prepared by the residents at the LAP house are based on donations from the food pantry and other benefactors.

First LAP program participants unloaded a Matson container of food boxes Monday in the St. James Food Pantry in Palolo. Former convict Doug Araujo helped pile up food.

Most of the LAP members speak freely about their crimes. They tell their stories at Oahu intermediate and high schools with a purpose of derailing teenagers heading down the same paths. The first answer to a question about what led to prison is usually "drugs and alcohol."

Taufetee took a two-year course in substance abuse counseling at Leeward Community College and served an internship in a Salvation Army program that is similar to LAP. But the credentials that give him credibility with ex-convicts come from a past very much like theirs.

He was 20 years old, a gang member and crystal methamphetamine addict, when he killed another man in a fight in Palolo. He returned to dangerous company and drug abuse when he was released from prison in 1992 after serving 4 1/2 years for manslaughter.

Taufetee credits football all-star Joe Onosai and his "Men of War" group with turning him around: "They found me dealing drugs at Mayor Wright housing, they called me out of bars. They told me God has a plan for me."

The intervention group brought him to a Pentecostal prayer meeting, which was the turning point for him. "This church rescued me," he said of Word of Life. Taufetee tells his story in a video produced by the church. It is shown to new members as an introduction to Life After Prison.

One of the keys to success of the program is the mentoring by himself and others who have been through the program. Lee Seleni and Doug Araujo, resident managers at the dorm, accompany the men to 12-step program meetings, job interviews and to church. Someone is always there to talk things over, give encouragement and probably bring prayer into the mix.

"I know I didn't have the support when I came out of prison," Taufetee said. "In our (Samoan) culture, you don't tell things that bother you, you don't show weakness." Parental discipline can be harsh and physical "to toughen you up."

He said he and his father were at odds throughout his childhood and teen years. When his parents visited him in prison, "I told my father a lot of things of my life. We cried. We were able to put things behind us. I found the love I was always looking for. It's unreal."

Many of the men said they grew up in families where going to church was part of their childhood. "You grow away from it because of what you're doing," said Olive, 30, a LAP graduate and now one of the unpaid staff.

"When I got back into praise and worship of God, it was awesome."

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