Program in Marin City using community collaboration as crime prevention

MARIN CITY, Calif. (KGO) -- A stunning drop in crime in one San Francisco Bay Area county is happening because of the vision of one woman who inspired her community. She pulled together a large coalition of services to create change, and, that change includes law enforcement.

The Phoenix Project in Marin County is Building a Better Bay Area.

The founder of the program is Felecia Gaston. She says one of the first young men to participate in the Phoenix Project is Shannon Bynum, Jr. She says he had been in and out of the legal system and it wasn't for major crimes, but it was enough. He was on probation.

Shannon said that the Phoenix Project case managers wanted him to be on the right path when he turned 18. They asked him if he needed his record expunged-- he said yes. Now, he doesn't have any record at all of his past juvenile encounters with the law.

The Phoenix Project is located in the heart of the housing complex in Marin City, which means it's easy to access. It acts as sort of a second family and connects them with a variety of services that allow them to move forward.

Founder Felecia Gaston says the services can be something small.

"I need my driver's license, I need some clothing for a job interview. I need a bus pass to go to a doctor's appointment."

Gaston says the goal is "community collaboration as crime prevention".

The Marin Housing Authority donates the office space at no charge. The Phoenix Project holds workshops to teach young men everything from how to fill out an application for a job, the importance of keeping a job, how to dress for success, and good manners. ABC7 News' Cheryl Jennings was proud to participate in one of the first mentoring classes.

The Chief of the Marin County Probation Department, Mike Daly, said, "The Phoenix Project has been a total success. Felecia Gaston is a hero. She has almost single-handedly been responsible for decreasing the amount of people on probation in the community, as well as helping people while they're on probation in the community."

But, it wasn't easy to get the Phoenix Project accepted. The Chief Public Defender, Jose Varela, says he recalls a meeting in which he and Cheryl Jennings participated nine or 10 years ago.

"When people were very pessimistic about whether any change could come to Marin City. I'm glad we're here to say yes, the statistics bear out that there's been change in Marin City."

There are statistics from the Marin County Adult Probation Department which show a steady drop in the number of people on probation, adults and juveniles.

Things were drastically different in 2009 according to Gaston.

"Crime was on the rise, assaults, vandalism, robberies at the bus stop. It was important to pull together a team and say, what can we do to help? And law enforcement said we want to help, we want to be involved."

Darrell Roary, a case manager with the Public Defender's office, says people in the community came together at the request of Felecia Gaston. They created a survey to find out what the young men in the community needed.

The survey revealed that a lot of services were needed. So, a collaboration was formed with many community partners who are working every day to help Phoenix Project participants become successful.

Roary was among the first key liaisons between the Phoenix Project, the community and law enforcement.

Gaston said Darrell and two other men who lived in Marin City had been in the system and had changed their lives around, for over 10 years and became outreach workers and mentors.

Roary said, "I try to take my experiences, the things I've gone through and then now reach back and help others who are going some of the same things."

Gaston says the caseworkers check in with the juveniles and adults on a regular basis asking them how they're doing, keeping them going with encouragement, a lot of moral support, nurturing, a lot of mentoring.

The work is so impressive, that Roary and other outreach workers have been hired by the county probation department. It's part of a movement called "Restorative Justice."

Mike Daly, Chief of Adult Probation in Marin County, says his department offers services which supplement those of the Phoenix Project such as cognitive behavioral training and treatment, to change behavior, plus drug and alcohol classes, anger management classes and domestic violence classes.

Those who successfully complete their probation are acknowledged on a "Wall of Change " in the Probation Department.

Daly says his department takes restorative justice even further by offering job training.

"We have a nice construction program going in Marin City that gives people real jobs."

Shannon Bynum, Jr., one of the original Phoenix Project members, is now a father of three and is a highly regarded apprentice at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing in Novato. The company has very strict rules for its employees, according to Operations Manager John Rossi.

"No felonies, drug free, no misdemeanors for seven years, clean driving record, no DUI's. I don't know too much about the program. But I can tell you that if they helped Shannon guide his way to where he is today, they did a very good job because he's a model employee and he's great to work with."

Bynum says he feels he is a better father and better man thanks to the Phoenix Project.

And the founder of the Phoenix Project, Felecia Gaston, says she is "super proud" of all the success stories. She says it's a benefit for the entire county and the community. She says it's prevention at its best.

One final note-- the Phoenix Project collaboration helps at least 150 people a month in Marin City, on a budget of just $250,000 a year. Compare that to the cost of incarcerating just one person for nearly $50,000 a year.

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