Orlando Madison believes in second chances.

But for him, a 50 year-old Arkansas native, his second chance has been a long time coming.

In 2003, after serving a six-and-a-half year sentence for a drug felony charge, Orlando returned to his hometown of Benton, Arkansas, determined to make some big changes.


“I admit that what I did was wrong — I’m not going to sugar-coat it,” he says “But once I got home — right is right.”

He soon learned, though, that the road to re-entry would be a bumpy one.

There are a number of challenges that formerly incarcerated individuals can face when they return home from prison.

Many deal with the stigma of having served time. Some are still struggling with addiction or mental illness, which they may have had before they went to prison. And others, like Orlando, live in states that — up until recently — held public policy restrictions that limited the kind of help a person with a drug felony charge could receive.

Arkansas was one of those states.

[rebelmouse-image 19533727 dam="1" original_size="1024x768" caption="Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock. Photo via jglazer75/Wikimedia." expand=1]Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock. Photo via jglazer75/Wikimedia.

At the time of Orlando’s release, the Arkansas state legislature observed a ban from President Clinton’s 1996 overhaul to the welfare program, known as PRWORA, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. In this ban, directly related to the “war on drugs,” PRWORA imposed a denial of federal benefits to people convicted in state or federal courts of felony drug offenses. This meant that individuals like Orlando who were otherwise eligible for federal benefits like The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (colloquially known as food stamps) were instead denied for life.

“You couldn’t vote again, you couldn’t get food stamps,” remembers Orlando of that time.

The difficulty of that time took a toll on his personal life too. “My son’s mother, we split up,” he says.

Making matters worse, Orlando was unable to work due to a disability.

So to make ends meet, he sought out help from local community centers, food banks, and outreach programs. But he still lived with food insecurity, just like 41.2 million Americans do every day.

Most of the time, he says, his fridge would be completely empty.

[rebelmouse-image 19533728 dam="1" original_size="399x158" caption="Photo via the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance." expand=1]Photo via the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

Orlando managed to survive for years without a safety net. But when he saw the opportunity for a second chance, he jumped on it.

In the years he spent at local food banks, Orlando would frequently run into Lynn Sudderth, a food stamp outreach field manager from the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

This organization works on the local level to advocate for people struggling with food insecurity, by organizing food banks and helping those eligible to sign up for food stamp benefits.

One day while Lynn was running an outreach session at a community center, Orlando expressed to Lynn his frustrations with the ban. He wanted to do anything he could to help, even offering to tell his story to anyone who could be influential in helping to lift it.

“Every time I saw him, he asked if it had changed, and we would sit and chat,” says Lynn. “I told him at one point that I was hopeful, and if the ban was lifted, I would personally come down to take his application.”

On August 1, 2017 — 15 years after his release —the state of Arkansas voted to lift the ban entirely.

Finally, it was possible for Orlando to access the benefits he needed to get back on his feet and stop living with food insecurity.

Lynn and Orlando filling out SNAP paperwork. Photo via Lynn Sudderth.

“The week we were able to start taking applications, I surprised Orlando at the Care Center breakfast and signed him up," says Lynn.

"We had to take a picture to celebrate."

So far, Orlando says it’s had a big impact on his life.

As for groceries, Orlando receives a monthly benefit of $130, which he uses to buy packages of chicken and ground beef to cook full meals. “It feels real good to put food in my fridge, I promise you that,” he says. “For people who can’t afford their food, to get warm food... it’s just a big blessing.”

And just this past April, he secured his own place to live for the first time in a very long time.

“With the extra money ... to pay for groceries, I have more money to pay my bills — the basic bills like lights and gas. It’s a huge help” he says.

After seeing the positive change these benefits brought to his own life, Orlando has made it his mission to help others like him in the community through volunteering and outreach.

“I see people in a similar situation, and they need to get that help too,” he says.

He volunteers his time at a local Christian community center, traveling to food banks to help bring back healthy options for the center’s food pantry. He participates in the center’s cooking classes, and sees himself as a role model, especially for the younger generations struggling to “get to the next level.”

[rebelmouse-image 19533730 dam="1" original_size="960x638" caption="Courtesy of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. " expand=1]Courtesy of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

“We really need to grab the young ones and say ‘Look, I got you’,” he explains. “ I can talk to them, say, ‘look, it can happen. It can be done.’ Help find them a job. You just need a little help to get back on your feet.”

He believes there’s no shame in asking for a little help, and he’s hopeful others living with a former drug felony charge won’t have to struggle with food insecurity for as long as he did.

Orlando’s hope for the future also may not be far off.

Other states have recently taken similar measures to Arkansas, either modifying the ban or lifting it entirely. According to the most recent state options report, only seven states maintain the ban in full, and that number looks to be changing. A bill lifting the ban just cleared the Indiana Senate earlier this year.

Soon, second chances may not be nearly as hard to come by.

And Orlando couldn’t have set a better example for why second chances are so important. In reaching out to his community, inspiring others, and getting back on his own feet, Orlando makes a case for every American having greater access to healthy and sustaining food options — regardless of their past.

As for the future, Orlando is optimistic. “My son is 21 now, he’s doing great, and going to go to college. I see the good things now.”

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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