By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com
The partnership started with a question.
“Is there something we can do to really make an impact on the criminal justice system in Oklahoma City?”
Ayana Lawson, Thunder Vice President of Community and Lifestyle Services, recalled that question surfacing within the organization in the summer of 2020, with the conversation about societal injustice reaching a fever pitch nationally and in Oklahoma City alike.
The Thunder aimed to not just listen or talk but additionally, act. It was clear that breaking cycles of incarceration was a critical task in addressing the concerns of citizens about inequality in the justice system. After a heap of research and discussions between key figures in Basketball Operations and Community Engagement, the Thunder identified The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) as an ideal community partner.
TEEM is a non-profit that works in Oklahoma County to provide education, personal development and work readiness training, among other services, to those who are beginning their sentence or completing their debt to society. The goal for TEEM is for those that serve time in the criminal justice system to never do so again – breaking that aforementioned cycle of incarceration, which doesn’t just impact that 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 one person who has been impacted by the system. We’re talking about generational cycles."— Brittney Berling, development director for TEEM
TEEM’s focus extends to four crucial areas – a pre-trial program to help those in Oklahoma county jails who cannot pay bail and need to get back to their families, a community sentencing program run by Oklahoma County but with support from TEEM, a Veteran’s program to help our nation’s heroes receive the resources they deserve and a re-entry program for those within one year of returning to society.
For many who are exiting the criminal justice system, getting work is a nearly impossible obstacle due to a stigma when it comes to hiring. Dozens of other negative outcomes and additional problems flow downstream from a lack of employment, including basic needs like food, housing, transportation and even loss of family or community connection. That’s why on January 25 the Thunder will be hosting the Fair Chance Employment Expo at Paycom Center – an event where 30-40 businesses were invited to learn more about how they can be an inclusive employer to those looking to rejoin society in a positive way by getting a job.
The Fair Chance Employment Expo is not a flashy kick-starter event. Instead, it’s the culmination of a nearly 18-month relationship between the Thunder and TEEM. Instead of just checking a box with one big, team-wide project that would be sure to capture headlines and rack up views on social media, the Thunder aimed for a more holistic approach.
“This has been huge for us. This partnership has impacted our organization at every level,” said TEEM’s Development Director Brittney Berling.
The Thunder’s doctors and training staff created resource guides that could be used in halfway houses and other transitional locations to help TEEM participants with exercise and physical health. The Thunder’s chefs created a cookbook designed for those shopping at a food pantry or on a strict grocery budget. The Thunder’s communications staff helped create online profiles for TEEM and helped enhance the organization’s website and promotional materials, and that combined with a tip from the Thunder’s data science department helped lead to a financial grant to hire a new staff member.
The Thunder coaching staff engaged TEEM’s participants in a mentorship program, while Thunder Director of Security Paul Huggins and VP of Human and Player Performance Donnie Strack served as guest speakers to a women’s group. Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander participated in the annual holiday toy drive for the children of TEEM participants, and even surprised them with a Christmas call over Zoom.
Back in July of 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), women who were incarcerated were able to get together with their families and children in a pro-social, family-friendly event. OROC is often the last stop for inmates before they’re released, so a reunion with families could be emotional, jarring or difficult. However, with a bounce house, Rumble, Thunder Drummers and other Thunder entertainers uplifting the environment, the reunions that summer day were even sweeter and more joyous.
Perhaps the greatest impact in the Thunder and TEEM’s collaboration has come in the form of a book exchange program called Read to Connect, which has been one of the most popular engagements ever with TEEM. The Thunder and TEEM furnished duplicate copies of children’s books and in connecting with DOC facilities, provide one copy of a book to a parent who is incarcerated and another copy to their child. As a result, the family can read the book together over the phone and stay connected between visits. This initiative helps spark conversation, increases literacy, and strengthens family relationships.
“They might not be in person together, but they can share this story together,” said Berling. “That’s been wonderful.”
The program has been so popular that the Thunder’s commitment jumped up to 100 books per month. The Thunder selects different sets of books each month, which gives families the option to choose which ones interest them. Once the books are picked up by TEEM, they are distributed by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to several facilities, including the Clara Waters Correctional Center, Oklahoma City Correctional Center, Oklahoma Reentry Opportunity Center and Union City.
Connecting with one’s child is a human need, one that transcends a person’s status in the eyes of society or the criminal justice system. For TEEM and the Thunder, being able to facilitate that essential humanity is one major part of addressing that original question posed by Lawson and other key Thunder personnel back in the summer of 2020. In TEEM, the Thunder organization has found an avenue to make that impact – the type that could have ripple effects within the Oklahoma City community for decades to come.
“When we talk about cycles of incarceration or poverty, we’re not just talking about one person who has been impacted by the system. We’re talking about generational cycles,” said Berling. “The aim of our programming is that if we can help someone get out of that cycle, that flows not just to that individual but to their children.”