Gavilan student starts support group
George Luna was always an activist. It just took him almost 50 years and several stints in San Quentin, Folsom and Susanville state prisons to figure it out.
Now, with the help of faculty and staff at Gavilan College in Gilroy, Luna is turning that activism into creating support services for other formerly incarcerated students like himself.
Planting the seed
“My dad was an organizer with the United Farm Workers and I remember marching with my parents from Delano to Sacramento as a little kid. I didn’t realize it then, but that planted the seed,” Luna said.
It wasn’t an easy or direct path. As an adult, Luna was in and out of prison on drug charges and was far from being a model inmate. Nor did the prisons provide model rehabilitation programs. In San Quentin, however, he started taking advantage of programs offered by the nonprofit Insight Prison Project, which brings mindfulness meditation, yoga, anger management and restorative justice classes into prison. He was also able to complete an intensive pilot program to earn his drug and alcohol certificate. When he was finally released, he decided he needed to further his education and set his sights on completing the 4,000 hours of practicum to become a drug and alcohol counselor.
Fixing it for others
Unfortunately, he was turned away from three community colleges for various reasons before he went back to his own community and enrolled at Gavilan. Even then, as a convicted felon, he ran into roadblocks in passing a background check to fulfill 30 required hours of service learning. Angered, frustrated and humiliated, he went to the dean to withdraw from the class. Instead, he found a sympathetic ear and a promise from the dean to fix things. Changing his mind, he asked if he could start a club for ex-felons who are re-entering school.
“The veterans have their center, the Bay Area has Second Chances (for former inmates at City College of San Francisco), what about people in my community? I thought about it and told myself I wanted to fix this for the next person,” Luna said. “Now I’m about trying to make a change.”
Luna has already found 14 others to join the support group and a number of faculty and staff advisors and is preparing to distribute fliers for the next term. He’s gained the support of Gavilan’s Learning Council, spoken to at-risk youth, reached out to participants in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and talked about spreading the club to nearby colleges. All the while he has worked to complete a degree in communication, honed his computer skills and has mastered email and PowerPoint.
The former inmate has also discovered a variety of services at the college that he can access, from counseling to adaptive technology to financial aid, but it has taken time and persistence. Just as campus veteran centers are providing support for returning soldiers, Luna believes the new Re-entry Club will help formerly incarcerated students transition into school.
Such a club may be what’s needed on every campus. With the governor under orders to relieve overcrowding in California’s prisons, more and more nonviolent offenders are being released.
“What are we going to do with these people?” Luna asked. The main thing for them is to get an education. Once we get them to campus, education is definitely going to work, but we have to have the services to help them.”