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After serving two and a half years in jail for possession, Norris Cooper had a decision to make. It was December of last year, Christmas was right around the corner, and all Cooper wanted to do was go home and celebrate the holiday with his family. But coming home also meant going back to his old westside Chicago neighborhood, his old friends and his old ways.

“I had to make the decision to do something I had never done before,” the 48-year-old explained. “Change my lifestyle, do something different that would work this time.”

It had been a long time since Cooper had ruled his own life. First, his drug addiction had taken him over and set the tempo for an increasingly strained relationship with his family. Then, in jail, his daily life was dictated by guards and routine. He’d had enough time to atone for his crimes, to make the decision to return home a changed man. But part of him wasn’t sure if he was any different, or if he could be, without help.

A Guiding Hand And Temporary Home

Before leaving prison, Cooper had been assigned a case manager from Safer Foundation. The organization has been working for more than 30 years to reduce recidivism throughout Illinois and eastern Iowa by providing formerly incarcerated people the employment and social service tools to successfully re-enter their communities. Cooper’s case manager recommended that he go to a rehabilitation house instead of heading straight home to his family. “It was way on the other side of town, where I didn’t know anyone, no friends or family, so I wouldn’t have any distractions,” he said. He made the three-month commitment to stay at the house, which meant missing another year’s Christmas with the people he loved. “It was hard, but it was something I had to do. That’s where I began.”

Cooper speaks slowly, in a gravely drawl that lets him think about what he’s going to say before he says it. So when he says, “that’s where I began,” he means it. For those first 30 days, within a matrix of strict curfews, daily chores, group meetings and regular check-ups with his case manager from Safer, Cooper began to remember what it was to be independent again.

“It was a start that I really needed. [The rehabilitation house] gave me a chance to be dependent on only myself. It gave me a sense that I could be responsible for my own actions. I was there with about 30 other people that I really didn’t know and we had to be a part of this home together.”

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