Ithacans wondering what exactly “Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources of Tompkins County” (OAR) provides to local folks, for the name is a bit vague, can get some feeling for the group’s work by looking at their annual report for 2014. On a brightly-colored pie chart is listed “transportation” (20 percent); “housing assistance” (14 percent); “property retrieval/storage” (15 percent), paperwork for courts, assigning lawyers, and so on, over a dozen categories of assistance, including giving out bail loans to select county residents—a service that OAR says saved the county about $400,000 in 2014 in overcrowding costs.

These are just charts and numbers though, which can only tell so much about any one group’s impact on individual lives. A few stories of those who have helped and been helped by OAR were made public at the non-profit’s annual meeting, held on May 20.

Valerie Sykes, a client services worker with OAR, thanked the volunteers who drive those without transportation to visit loved ones sitting in jail.

“You’re always going beyond and above to assist clients in need,” Sykes said, giving the example of one volunteer who helped to move furniture for a woman when she couldn’t afford a U-Haul.

Sykes presented the “Golden OAR Award for Outstanding Service” to Elizabeth Schneider and Garry Thomas, two volunteers who have driven families to the Tompkins County jail on Tuesdays and Saturdays for many years.

“I’ve done this about 10 years and driven to every part of this county from Trumansburg, out to Mecklenburg Road, to Dryden, to town here, sometimes all in the same morning,” Thomas said. “There is something called ‘selfish altruism.’ We get a lot out of it, too.”

“When I was young and idealistic, they used to say suppose they gave a war and nobody came,” Thomas continued. “And now I’ll say, ‘Suppose they want to build a jail, or expand a jail, and nobody came.’”

Kevin George, an OAR client, related his gratitude for the help he was provided when incarcerated.

“The thing you sit and wait the most for is the phone call you get once in a great while, and the two visits you can get the same week,” George said. “You can come to OAR, and they give you a half hour twice a week to call your loved ones [in jail]. It’s amazing.”

Lisa Stevens first was helped by OAR when her daughter’s father was in the county jail.

“I could speak on the phone even though I didn’t have the money to pay collect calls. I could visit even though I didn’t have a vehicle,” Stevens said. In recent years, Stevens has “graduated over and over from the women’s group, Choices” and hopes “to work sometime in the future to help with the revolving door of jail with addicts in our community.”

Deb Dietrich, OAR’s director, introduced keynote speaker Keri Blakinger, the newest member of the non-profit’s board.

“Keri had an outcome different than a lot of our clients. She spent time upstate but got out quicker than many of our clients, and was readmitted to Cornell,” Dietrich said. “I think Keri would be the first one to say to you she’s white.”

When she was arrested for heroin possession in 2010 as a Cornell student, Blakinger said she “knew nothing about the workings of the justice system, because I never needed to … my understanding of the law pretty much extended to what was on Law & Order: SVU.”

After a promising career in figure skating fizzled out in her late teens, Blakinger said she began nine years of addiction during a summer school stint at Harvard. Later, while a student at Rutgers, she “decided to take time to get my stuff together, and ended up just finding the inside of a needle.”

With good grades and a solid résumé, Blakinger said she “looked like a good transfer candidate” for Cornell. Once she made it to Ithaca, she made did well in classes and was elected an editor at the Daily Sun.

“Everything looked good on paper until I was in the paper,” Blakinger said.

Since her state sentence ended in 2012, Blakinger has realized that she can’t run from her past, so she might as well embrace it head-on.

“If people identify me as Keri, the girl who went to prison, that’s okay with me,” Blakinger said. “Keri the drug addict is now Keri the advocate and Keri the prisoner is now Keri the prison activist—and without the former identifiers, the latter would never have come about. I want to be a reminder that addiction can happen to anyone.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with OAR can call the offices, located at 518 W. Seneca St., at 607-272-7885.  •

This story is by Josh Brokaw and originally appeared in The Ithaca Times.

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