Skip to main content

DOC and South Seattle College Celebrates 25 Years of Turning Lives Around

July 19, 2023

By Chris Wright, Communications Office
and Ty Swenson, Director of Communications and Marketing - South Seattle College
photo of people with tribal blankets over backs

Event attendees and keynote speakers, including SSC Interim President Dr. Jean Hernandez (center right) and Dept. of Corrections Administrator Susie Leavell (center left) were presented with tribal blankets during a traditional blanket blessing ceremony performed by members of the Kalispel and Cowlitz Tribes at the Justice Involved Solutions Graduation, Celebration, and Recognition Program on June 17, 2023. Also pictured, from left to right, are Greg Gardner, Danny Rush, Bob Bucci and Gordon Cook. (Photo courtesy of South Seattle College)

The Justice Involved Solutions (JIS) Unit at South Seattle College is guided by its mission to create a welcoming, supportive, and respectful learning environment for currently and formerly justice-involved students as they transition from the inside/out.

On Saturday, June 17, that mission was on display as JIS held its 103rd graduation ceremony, celebrating the spring quarter graduating class of 36 students who completed Life Skills to Work, Go-2-Work or Continuing Education classes on their guided pathway toward future education and employment opportunities.

“I want you to dream big, I want you to dream really big,” South Seattle College Interim President Dr. Jean Hernandez told the graduates. “The sky is the limit, anything you want is possible, and the whole college supports you.”

The event was also an opportunity to celebrate the larger history of providing this important service to our community: the JIS Unit has been in operation for over 25 years, and those 36 graduates honored on Saturday join over 9,000 others who have either graduated or achieved a positive outcome (defined as completing coursework milestones, obtaining successful employment, and/or enrolling in additional educational and training opportunities).

It was a moment to acknowledge the many partnerships with state and local agencies to bring JIS to reality. Employees from the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) a key partner along with King County) attended the ceremony to join in recognition of a valued partnership they assisted in creating so many years ago.

The event started with a traditional blanket blessing ceremony performed by Sheila Meshell of the Kalispel Tribe and Racquel “Rocky” Shaffer of the Cowlitz Tribe. Keynote speakers (including Dr. Hernandez) and valued partners whose contributions have built this unique community care team and support JIS students were presented with blankets adorned with tribal artwork as smoke from a sage smudge cleansed the space.

In a touching moment, Mr. Joseph E. Garcia – Sr. Faculty, Solutions Facilitator and Faculty Advisor for JIS – was presented with a surprise blanket from the Cowlitz Tribe for his dedication to JIS education. “You are an amazing human being,” Shaffer said to Garcia as he was embraced by the blanket, followed by hugs.

Garcia reflected on the history of the JIS Unit and honored the leadership of longtime South employee Keith Marler, who was at the helm of JIS for many years before his passing.

“We produce results, and I want our students to have as much opportunity as everyone,” Garcia said.

Susie Leavell, Senior Administrator for the DOC Reentry System who was at the table when a plan for JIS was hatched, also spoke as a keynote.

“I can’t tell you how proud I feel, knowing the history that it has been over 25 years since we spitballed the support we wanted to bring,” Leavell said. “We have been able to normalize education for all.”

As the ceremony turned back to the graduates after reflecting on a quarter century of impact and empowerment, Dr. Hernandez shared a surprise announcement: She and Interim Seattle Colleges Chancellor Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap have started the Hernandez and Rimando-Chareunsap Second Chance Scholarship for JIS students moving forward. If you would like to contribute to this endowed scholarship, please send your donations to the Seattle Colleges Foundation and name the Hernandez and Rimando-Chareunsap Second Chance Scholarship as the fund you are supporting.

Congratulations to the JIS Class of 2023!