The Fountain Fund Dispenses Hope to the Hopeless
by Kerri Creel
After a providential encounter with a formerly incarcerated man that he himself prosecuted, former US Attorney Tim Heaphy realized that there was more to making a safe and productive community than prosecuting individual offenders; it was also about helping those same people re-enter society after their release.
To that end, in December 2016, Tim founded The Fountain Fund, a non-profit organization in Charlottesville dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet through low-interest loans, financial tutoring, and emotional support. Their mission is to invest in previously imprisoned people, and by believing in them, help them reach their potential and become successful, financially-independent citizens, which is better and safer for families and communities.
Their unique name and descriptive logo are consistent with what The Fountain Fund is trying to accomplish: the image of the fountain depicting its restorative, nourishing, and sustaining nature.
Operated by a committed staff; financed by private philanthropists and other generous donors, and overseen by a board of directors (including former prosecutors) from the Charlottesville community, some people initially ask if their mission is inconsistent with the usual job of a prosecuting attorney.
“Since prosecutors are motivated by public safety, this idea is not inconsistent at all,” Heaphy explained. “We believe people should be held accountable at the front end, but then on the back end, we need to lift them up and help them be successful. That’s two halves of the same whole of public safety.”
With affordable loans from The Fountain Fund, the formerly incarcerated individuals can pay off court-imposed fines, purchase equipment or clothing for employment purposes, or even start a small business. This, in turn, enables these men and women to secure transportation to and from fruitful employment, build economic independence, and obtain hope in a sometimes hopeless-feeling situation.
These loans also provide people the ability “to create new patterns in their lives and begin making good choices for a new trajectory in life,” said Executive Director Erika Viccellio. “Our thought is when you create opportunities for people to thrive, it is better for them, the work force, and the community as a whole.”
The Fountain Fund initiated their first loan in May 2017. In the two years since, The Fountain Fund has provided 100 more loans totaling $280,000. Viccellio joined The Fountain Fund in September 2018 to work alongside Operations Manager Paul Yates and Program Manager Carl Brown. As executive director, Viccellio is currently working on building the loan fund and recruiting corporate banking partners in addition to private donors. Wells Fargo is already on board, and Viccellio is seeking four more banks.
“We hope to have $500,000 in the loan fund by the end of the year,” she explained. “As our partners keep doing their part, the returned money will be recycled back into the loan fund.” Even with recycling loans and recruiting corporate partners, The Fountain Fund will still require the generous donations of the community. Running the program is costly with operational expenses such as office overhead, three full-time staff salaries, training/classes, and supplementing the loan fund.
Although the financial agreements at The Fountain Fund are set up like a standard loan with a specific payment schedule and terms, the loan process and eligibility are unique. Three main points must be evaluated and met: the individual must possess the ability to pay back the loan, he or she must have been incarcerated, and he or she must have self-identified a plan of how their life can be improved by the loan.
The term of the loan is usually two to three years, and then the interest from the loans is placed back into the fund to help others. Four of the two-year loans have already been paid off. “They pay it back, and we pay it forward,” Viccellio noted. The people who have benefitted from the loans want the next person to get that same lift.
There is no cap defined on the amount of money loaned, but the average amount per recipient is $3,000. “Lately, we have had a lot more business loan inquiries which can be in the $10,000 to $15,000 range,” Viccellio explained. “For example, we just helped someone to buy a dump truck for a hauling business.”
The Fountain Fund’s clients are called “client partners” since their emphasis is on relationships and maintaining a mutual accountability. “It’s not just a lending relationship,” Viccellio said. “We are not just providing cash and loaning money; we are creating a new future and making an investment in people.”
As part of the commitment to being more than just a lending institution, The Fountain Fund offers a specific, formalized educational training program that is available to all client partners. In addition to the one-on-one counseling and personal financial advice that they offer, The Fountain Fund is currently asking all who have a loan to make a commitment to attend a “financial 101” training program.
To incentivize their client partners to do this, the fund created a savings plan. If a client partner agrees to go to three classes, The Fountain Fund will put 10 percent of the person’s loan into a savings account for them. Then they ask that their client partners match that donation.
“We felt like the best way to be stewards of the funds we have available is to give financial knowledge and teach how to make smart decisions about money,” Viccellio emphasized. The training is offered at their offices in the Jefferson School City Center, which is a local hub of several non-profit organizations and a central location to collaborate.
For these returning citizens, there are many challenges and roadblocks on the road to re-entry. One of the major problems is that, most often, he or she owes numerous court fees and fines as part of their sentencing. According to certain state laws, owing court-imposed costs can keep a previously-incarcerated person from being released from parole and/or from getting a driver’s license. Without a driver’s license, it is very difficult to sustain a job.
Also, after some types of convictions, it is difficult to secure housing and be eligible for typical bank loans. Unemployed, homeless, and in debt, the insurmountable hurdles are sometimes too much for the individual. Many times, without support, they wind up back in the prison system. “The challenges that people face are daunting,” Viccellio said. “Sometimes the list of financial obligations is pages long. We try to remove those barriers so they can be successful. They can be productive, but they need help.”
More than the loan money itself, there are also intangible benefits that come with being a client partner such as peer networking with the other loan recipients. Priceless side effects of the partnership also include building self-confidence and receiving encouragement. Author Katie Kacvinsky is credited with this thought: “It’s amazing how far you’re willing to go when someone believes in you.” This statement certainly rings true for many of the transformational stories of The Fountain Fund’s client partners.
One woman, upon hearing that her loan was approved, became teary-eyed and said, “No one has every believed in me before.” Heaphy explained that The Fountain Fund’s belief in people has a powerful effect on their client partners. “Knowing that we are former prosecutors who are trusting them and investing in them has real psychic benefits,” he said.
Ms. Tricia Henshaw is a local resident and client-partner of The Fountain Fund. In and out of incarceration since the age of fourteen, Henshaw was challenged with breaking the cycle of addiction and re-offending. After the final eight and a half year stint in prison, she was released in 2013 but on an indefinite probation due to a court-imposed fine. The court started garnishing her wages, and at age 42, she had never possessed a driver’s license.
Without emotional or financial support, Henshaw didn’t know how to reach out and alter her situation. But things changed for her when a friend told Henshaw about The Fountain Fund in May 2018. There she met the staff who actually listened to her, believed in her, and offered her more than just money; they offered encouragement. “Carl and Mr. Yates accepted me and helped me to get started without judgment,” Henshaw shared. “I realized I wasn’t alone, and I learned to have faith in myself. After the life I’ve lived, they helped me to completely turn my life around.”
On probation since her teens, The Fountain Fund provided Henshaw with a loan to pay the money associated with her probation and finally be released of it. She was able to get a driver’s license for the first time in her life and to purchase her very first vehicle. Since the loans are customized to each individual, the loan is based on Henshaw’s income, and she is currently paying it back. “They made it affordable to pay the money back without struggling,” she said. “There’s no way I would’ve been able to pay back that money without them.”
Lisa Rengers of the Louisa County Re-entry Council also shared success stories of those who received help from The Fountain Fund. “One couple didn’t have a driver’s license and were relying fully on family for transportation,” she said. “The Fountain Fund helped them pay off their fines and costs, and now they are both doing phenomenal. Four of the guys were able to get their CDLs and are working full-time and making a great living.”
Rengers, a retired DSS employee, is the chair and case manager for the Re-Entry Council, and she is passionate about her work. In Louisa county, approximately 35 individuals are released from incarceration per year and returned to the area. Rengers helps them with referrals, resources, and “wraps them up in service.”
A friend told Rengers about The Fountain Fund by saying, “Quick, quick, call them!” Once she learned that they could help get people’s driver’s licenses back (one of the key roadblocks to success), Rengers contacted them right away. They have been community partners ever since. “That’s all I needed to hear,” Rengers said. “If I can solve transportation, that’s the major issue. It gets folks back to work and resists idle hands.”
Both Rengers and Viccellio mentioned that the people The Fountain Fund is helping do want to be productive, to support their families, and to not go back to jail. In order to do that, they usually need a leg up – emotionally and financially.
“I’ve learned, in just the short time I’ve been here, that the people are earnest, resourceful, and eager to put forward a new life plan… and we help to resource it in all kinds of ways,” Viccellio concluded.
Once a month, client partners meet with The Fountain Fund staff for an advisory council meeting. During a recent pre-meeting meal, individuals shared their challenges, successes, guilt, and newfound hope with one another. The recurring theme with their stories was that even though they recognize their previous poor choices and accept the unrecoverable lost time with loved ones, they know they cannot change the past, but they can change their future. And that’s what The Fountain Fund enables them to do.
For more information, please visit www.fountainfund.com. To partner with and/or donate to The Fountain Fund, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.