With Read to Connect, Thunder taps into the direction of TEEM

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com

The partnership has started with a question.

“Is there anything we can do to really impact the criminal justice system in Oklahoma City?

Ayana Lawson, Thunder’s vice president of community and lifestyle services, recalled that this issue surfaced within the organization in the summer of 2020, with the conversation about societal injustice coming to a head in the nationwide and in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder aimed not only to listen or talk, but also to act. It was clear that breaking cycles of incarceration was a key task in addressing citizens’ concerns about inequality in the justice system. After a lot of research and discussions between key figures in basketball operations and community engagement, the Thunder identified the Department of Education and Employment (TEEM) as an ideal community partner.

TEEM is a non-profit organization that works in Oklahoma County to provide education, personal development, and job readiness training, among other services, to those beginning their sentence or paying off their debt. towards society. TEEM’s goal is that those who serve time in the criminal justice system never do so again – breaking that aforementioned cycle of incarceration, which not only affects this singular individual, but impacts future generations. in the family tree.

“When we talk about cycles of incarceration or poverty, we’re not just talking about someone who’s been impacted by the system. We’re talking about generational cycles.”

— Brittney Berling, TEEM Director of Development

TEEM’s focus extends to four crucial areas – a pre-trial program to help those in Oklahoma County jails who cannot pay bail and must return to their families, a community sentencing run by Oklahoma County but with support from TEEM, a veterans program to help our nation’s heroes receive the resources they deserve and a reintegration program for those who are reintegrated into society during this year.

For many who come out of the criminal justice system, finding work is an almost impossible hurdle due to the stigma of hiring. Dozens of other negative outcomes and additional problems stem from a lack of employment, including basic needs like food, shelter, transportation, and even the loss of family or community ties. That’s why on January 25, the Thunder will host the Fair Chance Employment Expo at the Paycom Center – an event where 30-40 companies have been invited to learn more about how they can be an inclusive employer for those looking to re-enter. society positively by getting a job.

The Fair Chance Employment Expo is not a flashy startup event. Instead, it’s the culmination of a nearly 18-month relationship between the Thunder and TEEM. Instead of just ticking a box with a big, team-wide project that would be sure to grab headlines and rack up views on social media, the Thunder aimed for a more holistic approach.

“It was huge for us. This partnership has impacted our organization at every level,” said TEEM Director of Development Brittney Berling.

Thunder doctors and training staff have created resource guides that could be used in halfway houses and other transitional settings to help TEEM participants with exercise and physical health. Thunder Chiefs have created a cookbook designed for those who shop from a pantry or on a strict grocery budget. Thunder communications staff helped create online profiles for TEEM and helped improve the organization’s website and promotional materials, and this, combined with advice from Thunder’s data science department, has obtained a financial subsidy to hire a new member of staff.

Thunder’s coaching staff engaged TEEM participants in a mentorship program, while Thunder director of safety Paul Huggins and vice president of human and player performance Donnie Strack served as guest speakers invited to a women’s group. Thunder ringleader Shai Gilgeous-Alexander participated in the annual toy drive for the children of TEEM participants, and even surprised them with a Christmas call on Zoom.

In July 2021, there was a rare opportunity for a Department of Corrections facility to open its doors for a day to collaborate with the Thunder and TEEM. Through the Roc the Bloc Block Party at the Oklahoma Re-Entry and Opportunity Center (OROC), incarcerated women were able to reunite with their families and children in a prosocial and family event. OROC is often the last stop for inmates before their release, so reuniting with families can be emotional, shocking or difficult. However, with a bounce house, Rumble, Thunder Drummers and other Thunder artists uplifting the environment, the reunion on this summer’s day was even sweeter and happier.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the Thunder and TEEM collaboration came in the form of a book swap program called Read to Connect, which has been one of the most popular engagements ever with TEEM. . In partnership with the Thunder Rolling Book Bus, presented by American Fidelity, the Thunder and TEEM provided duplicate copies of children’s books and, by connecting to DOC facilities, provide a copy of a book to an incarcerated parent and another copy to their child. So the family can read the book together over the phone and keep in touch between visits. This initiative helps spark conversation, increases literacy and strengthens family relationships.

“They may not be in person together, but they can share this story together,” Berling said. “It was wonderful.”

The program was so popular that the Thunder’s commitment jumped to £100 a month. The Thunder selects different sets of books each month, giving families the flexibility to choose the ones that interest them. After the books are collected by TEEM, they are distributed by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to several facilities, including Clara Waters Correctional Center, Oklahoma City Correctional Center, Rehabilitation Opportunity Center, Oklahoma and Union City.

Communicating with your child is a human need, which transcends a person’s status in society or the criminal justice system. For TEEM and the Thunder, being able to facilitate this essential humanity is a major part of answering this original question posed by Lawson and other key Thunder personnel in the summer of 2020. In TEEM, the Thunder organization found a way to make that impact — the kind that could have ripple effects within the Oklahoma City community for decades to come.

“When we talk about cycles of incarceration or poverty, we are not just talking about someone who has been affected by the system. We’re talking about generational cycles,” Berling said. “The goal of our programming is that if we can help someone break out of this cycle, it doesn’t just impact that person, but their children.”

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