He sent letters – hundreds of them – to churches, to charities, to businesses, asking each to help. The few that did respond declined. Dirk Van Velzen, who was serving time in prison for stealing, learned a hard lesson that crime would not pay for his college tuition.
Now, the convict who once landed on “America’s Most Wanted” is applying that knowledge to help other inmates who are out of options like he was. While he was still in prison, Van Velzen started a nonprofit, which continues to assist inmates like he was get an education.
Van Velzen realizes he was fortunate. While in prison, he was able to receive a bachelor’s degree in organizational science after his father agreed to pay for him to enroll in a distance learning program offered through Penn State University.
The idea for a startup came next. And Van Velzen started writing again. This time, the money poured in — $60,000 in grants between 2000 and 2009. His Seattle startup, which he dubbed the Prison Scholar Fund, has since helped 110 inmates in 22 states pay for college, vocational and technical courses.
In 2006, the Prison Scholar Fund received IRS 501(c) 3 status. Van Velzen was released in 2015. He believes tearing down walls that lead to educational programs for inmates can keep them from returning to crime or prison and supply Puget Sound-area businesses with a skilled workforce.
Libby Hikind, founder and CEO of GrantWatch.com, said nonprofits across the nation are devising strategies to reduce the number of prisoners who commit crimes again after they are released. From Tennessee to Texas, grants that cater to reducing recidivism, particularly for at-risk youth, can be identified on GrantWatch, a search engine that lists funding opportunities for nonprofits, entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Advocates for inmates believe lowering recidivism is in the public interest. The Rand Corp. found that 43 percent of inmates who participate in educational programs while in prison are less likely to return within three years. Van Velzen said that just two of the 74 Prison Scholar Fund recipients have been arrested again following their release. That's about 3 percent, compared to the 68 percent national recidivism rate.
Despite the merits of educational programs like the Prison Scholar Fund to reduce recidivism, lawmakers are still hesitant to allocate public dollars to increase education for inmates. In 1994, Congress passed legislation that made inmates ineligible to receive federal Pell grants, making the need-based option for low-income students out of the reach of Van Velzen when he first began his search for tuition assistance almost two decades ago.
Van Velzen is now a partner at Seattle-based Social Venture Partners and a Stanford University executive program graduate. He works with MOD Pizza and other Puget Sound-area companies to help inmates find work once they’re released. Meanwhile, the Prison Scholar Fund is collaborating with the University of Washington to increase access for prisoners to the school’s online social sciences degree program.
In December 2017, Van Velzen received a grant from Grammy-award winner John Legend, one of eight presented to entrepreneurs across the nation who have founded mission-driven nonprofits or for-profits focused on criminal justice reform.
Nonprofits, public and private foundations, small businesses and entrepreneurs frustrated by the often-overwhelming process involved with searching for grants can identify recidivism grants and funding opportunities that are easy to read and simple to comprehend at GrantWatch.com. Sign-up here to receive the weekly GrantWatch newsletter which features geographic-specific funding opportunities.
About the Author: Staff Writer for GrantWatch.com