By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Jefferson Award for unsung hero

Photo courtesy by Allyson West. This family photo shows Allyson West's father, Philip West, during his swearing-in as a Superior Court judge in 1969. From left are Barbara West, Amy West, Allyson, Philip West and Sally West.

Ex-local resident's work with prisoners feted

January 3, 2008/Ventura County Star

Allyson West was shocked to learn she had won an award that honors unsung heroes who perform extraordinary deeds with no desire for recognition.

West, who grew up in Ventura and now lives in the East San Francisco Bay Area, was honored in December for founding the California Re-Entry Program, which provides parolees with information, education and the tools they will need to succeed once they are released from prison.

For her work, West received a Jefferson Award, a national recognition system that honors community and public service in America.

"I certainly don't do this for the recognition, although I was, of course, very pleased and honored," said West, 50, of receiving the award. "I have read about some of the other recipients and feel very privileged to be in such company."

The Jefferson Awards originated in 1972 when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Sen. Robert Taft Jr., R-Ohio, and Sam Beard, chairman of the National Development Council, founded the American Institute for Public Service, a 501c3 public foundation, to establish a Nobel Prize for public and community service.

Today, the Jefferson Awards are presented on two levels: national and local. National award recipients represent a Who's Who of outstanding Americans. On the local level, recipients are ordinary people who do extraordinary things without expectation of recognition or reward.

A brief biography

Born in 1957 in Santa Paula, West is the youngest of three daughters of Amy and Philip West, a Municipal Court judge in Fillmore, where the family lived and where Allyson grew up and attended school until junior high.

In 1969, Philip West was appointed to the Ventura Superior Court bench by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1970, he was on the ballot for election to the position, but he died before the election took place in a boating accident off Anacapa Island in April 1970.

That year, the family moved to Ventura, where Allyson attended Cabrillo Junior High (now middle school) and graduated from Ventura High School in 1975.

She attended college at UC San Diego, then returned to Ventura County to work for Security Pacific Bank in 1981. She worked in the banking industry for 11 years in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in commercial and construction lending, becoming a vice president of Union Bank in 1990.

In 1992, upon the closure of the Union Bank construction lending office in Ventura, she began working for a Tibetan aid organization and moved to India in 1994 to help Tibetan women refugees learn to use computers.

Her love of India led her to attend graduate school at UC Berkeley and eventually return to India and Pakistan for intensive language study.

While studying Urdu in Pakistan, Allyson learned of teaching positions at San Quentin State Prison and decided to volunteer upon her return to the U.S. in 2000.

"I thought it sounded interesting," she said, "so I began as a volunteer tutor when I returned to the Bay Area."

The next level

West helped run the program for about three years and was tutoring in math when, in early 2003, a student approached her with questions about attending college outside of prison.

"As the weeks went by helping him choose classes, apply for financial aid his friends started coming to me and asking for help with housing, substance abuse treatment and information about how to transfer their parole to other counties," West recalled.

With a bachelor's degree in math and no background in such areas, West did what she could with help from the Internet.

"The men kept coming in greater and greater numbers, so I started recruiting volunteers to help," said West, who by the end of 2003 had gained approval from the prison to start her own stand-alone program with a few volunteers.

Places to go

The program now runs two nights a week in two locations in the prison.

The prisoners — who are seen on a first-come, first-served basis — talk to volunteer advisers about what they need in terms of resources when they are released. For instance, a man might need in-patient substance abuse treatment and want to go to college to study engineering.

"We would look up what treatment programs are available in his area, call the places to find out eligibility and availability and probably also call his parole agent to see what help and approval we can get from that quarter," West explained. "We would also give our client a financial aid packet for him to fill out before his release and find out what classes he could take during the semester he can first attend after his release."

Clients may show up one week and never come back, West said. But many show up week after week for more than a year to create comprehensive parole plans.

"We see about 60 men per week; the program serves approximately 60 first-time applicants per month and has served 475 clients in the past six months," West said.

Ultimate goals

West has several goals with the effort; the first is to provide a place where prisoners can drop in to talk to someone about their questions and concerns regarding parole and what they can do to make the successful transition outside prison.

"My secondary goal is to provide whatever information and resources we can that will give those prisoners the help they need — particularly in the crucial first hours and days after release — to help themselves and their families," said West, who works part time as a legal analyst in complicated criminal defense cases, using a legal database to organize facts and documents.

"My third goal is to educate the community about prisons and prisoners and their humanity and needs," she continued. "I do this primarily by bringing in volunteers, who then go back and inevitably talk to their families, friends and acquaintances about their work."

For West, the California Re-Entry Program is important because she believes everyone deserves many chances in life.

"Most of the men we work with are going to get out of prison very soon, and I have found them to be so eager and willing to make significant changes," she said. "I hope they never return to prison and live their lives in the health and dignity they — and we all — deserve.

"I also want them to see that there are many people out in their communities who see them as human beings with the ability to contribute to their society, that we care about them as people and want them to excel in life."

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