Rehabilitation Through Service: Cornerstone Builders

Published in our 2016 Annual Report.

In 1980, Kaven Donald, then 28, was sentenced to 198 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for heroin charges. While in prison, Donald was a student with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Upon graduation, he began serving as an inmate minister. He also sang with a traveling gospel band representing Angola at various events around the state. “I’m thankful to Warden [Burl] Cain for that. He took a chance on us. He gave us an opportunity to do better,” Donald says of his time ministering and performing.

While serving his time, Donald met fellow inmate and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary graduate Reverend Leo Jackson. In 1974, Jackson, then 27 years old, had been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for possession of heroin with intent to sell. He was pardoned in 2006 at the age of 59, after spending 32 years in prison.

After his release, Jackson began ministering at Second Zion Baptist Church in Marrero. In 2007, he was a member of the very first class of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Cornerstone Builders, a servant leadership program for formerly incarcerated men and women based on rehabilitation through service. The program is grounded in the belief that community service equips reentering citizens with the skills and assets necessary to become responsible, productive citizens, while also acting as a transformative experience benefitting the individual, their family, society and the victims of crime.

After serving 32 years of his own sentence, Donald was released on parole in 2012 at the age of 60. “When I did get out of prison, I was ready to go. At least, I thought I was. But I was 1980 ready, I wasn’t 2012 ready,” Donald admits. So, he called the only person he could think of who might be able to help him face the challenges of life on the outside – Leo Jackson.

By the time Donald was released from Angola in 2012, Jackson was serving as the Assistant Director of Cornerstone Builders and visited Angola regularly to speak to prisoners about reentering society and becoming productive citizens.

Jackson and Ronnie Moore, Program Director of Cornerstone Builders, embraced Donald and guided him through some of his toughest times. Working for Cornerstone Builders allowed Donald to have a source of income. In his limited spare time, Moore and Jackson brought him to the employment office to search for full-time work. “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know until I realized the little I did know,” Donald said of his new life.

Moore and Jackson helped Donald acquire a driver’s license and other necessary documents. The two helped him find connections in the community, as all of his own connections were still behind bars. He was introduced to people performing prison ministry who brought him behind the walls of Orleans Parish Prison. There, he spoke to prisoners about the importance of reentry programs. He connected with countless other people on his early journey, for which he was grateful after having been away from the city for 32 years. “That in and of itself helped me with a lot of development and independence,” he said.

Now, Donald works with Catholic Charities’ Food for Families/Food for Seniors program as an AmeriCorps volunteer packing food boxes and distributing them into cars. He commented, “When I’m putting food in the cars, I feel good. I feel like somebody. Even though it’s a small thing, people need it.”