July 19, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

This summer, Cora Vanden Heuvel and Ethan VanOrman are making phone calls, googling addresses, and verifying contact information. Each day, it’s a rinse and repeat. The goal? To update an excel spreadsheet.

“It was kind of pitched to me as my role being quality assurance,” said Cora Vanden Heuvel, a senior social work major from Rockford, Michigan.

VanOrman, a junior political science major from Grand Haven, Michigan, and Vanden Heuvel admit the work can become tedious at times. It’s the reason the “who” and the “why” behind what they’re doing drives them to do “what” they are doing.

Leading with a question

The project they are working on literally can re-direct people’s lives. It’s a project that began in 2015 after a political science professor had a conversation at a church discussion group.

“A returning citizen joined us one evening and I asked about the greatest challenges he faced when he got out of prison. He noted the nitty-gritty problem of tracking down where to find services; information was fragmented among a variety of groups, and those groups often didn’t know what others were doing,” said Kevin den Dulk, who is now the university’s associate provost. “I realized that was a problem we could tackle through some intrepid data-sleuthing and geographical work.”

The project begins

So, den Dulk pressed into the problem, found some helpful teammates in GIS, including Professor Jason VanHorn and then-student Julie Bylsma, and the dream of finding a solution unfolded. Now, eight years later, the Returning Citizens Map is an application that includes 3,200 resources covering everything from housing to transportation, from employment to churches—connecting returning citizens with a pathway to navigate how to meet their basic needs and discover opportunities.

“Re-entry is complicated and the more information about the resources that are available and about what assets already exist are going to be helpful,” said Vanden Heuvel.

The app maps all of the resources, allowing returning citizens in all 83 Michigan counties to access what they need, where they are.

Acting justly

VanOrman was drawn to this work in part because of an internship he had last summer through a Calvin connection in the public defender’s office. That experience inspired a passion in him for justice, especially at the community level.

“I started in the first part of the pipeline, [future inmates] come in, are jailed, and I would do the arraignment interviews with them,” said VanOrman of his summer internship experience. “Now, I’m on the other side, seeing people come out of the pipeline and I’m able to be involved in helping people not recidivate, to get back into community so they can start contributing to the well-being of the community. I really enjoy this work more. I know the work I’m doing has an effect on people.”

For Vanden Heuvel, she became interested in this through relationships. Her freshmen year, Michael Duthler, a returning citizen, came and spoke in her social work class. She learned a lot about the impact of the criminal justice system and began to dig in. She joined the Calvin Peacemakers, developed relationships with returning citizens, and through it “I started to see the mess that is re-entry.”

Small actions, big results

VanOrman and Vanden Heuvel saw both the problem, but also how they could be part of discovering a path forward.

To date, about a dozen students and a few professors have worked on the application, many through summer research experiences. While the project has come a long way in just eight years, literally spanning the entire state of Michigan, VanOrman and Vanden Heuvel have been working hard this summer to make sure every single name, address, and number are all updated so that returning citizens are best equipped to successfully navigate post-incarceration life.

“If one person uses this, gets connected to an employer, finds a job or housing, that could be the difference between them going back to jail or prison, that’s more than reason enough to keep doing this, to keep glued to the spreadsheet all day long,” said VanOrman.

“It’s why I’m a social work major, I want to do work that’s meaningful and makes a difference, even if I see very little of that happen,” said Vanden Heuvel. “I feel called to this work because of my faith. Looking outside and seeing the world and its brokenness and then being able to be part in that solution is a wonderful thing.”

And the two agree it’s just part of the solution. The problem is bigger, and the work must continue.

“People involved are excited about what this map provides,” said Vanden Heuvel, “but we’re eager to explore other opportunities to continue to provide broader support, and Calvin’s involvement so far in re-entry is a start.”

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