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Connections – Eliza Barr

Eliza Barr is very forthcoming about using her own experiences to inform her professional duties as the passionate and qualified executive director of Reaching Out From Within. Not familiar with ROFW? It is the non-profit organization created more than 40 years ago by SuEllen Fried, revered philanthropist and civic leader. Long known as an anti-bullying activist, she founded STOP Violence in 1982. Out of that campaign, Reaching Out From Within was born. ROFW was created in Kansas as an incarcerated-led program that empowers residents to transform themselves and heal each other. 

For more than a year, Eliza has been leading this organization whose mission is to address the “whole person” transformation for incarcerated individuals who want to make lasting changes in their behavior in order to become a role model for nonviolence, and become contributing members upon their return to our communities. Why is this such a good fit for Eliza and the organization? Because Eliza was born in prison to a mother who was shackled during childbirth. Both of her parents were residents of the prison system – at different times – throughout her upbringing. 

“They were intelligent people,” she is quick to note. “People are not their crimes, they are still people. Experiences, good and bad, shaped their lives.” Her father had dealt with drug addiction issues, and her mother had dealt with sexual abuse issues. Each was incarcerated at a different time in their children’s lives, so at least one parent was home to raise eight children. Eliza has seven siblings, and she is incredibly close to her brothers and sisters, and credits them with helping each other survive what could have been a difficult childhood. She also goes on to point out how proud she is of her parents. Her dad became a drug abuse counselor, and her mom became an advocate for abuse prevention. 

With that background, it was clear to Eliza that her gift was understanding the factors that lead to incarceration and understanding the people who are experiencing criminal behavior. She earned a degree in criminal justice, and started researching what her loved ones might need in the way of resources when they were released from prison. Viewed at the state level, not much thought went into that process – equipping a released inmate for life outside prison. She started working for Impact KC in employment services for individuals. She then broadened her scope to assist with not just jobs, but housing, counseling, family resources, etc. 

Reaching Out From Within was looking for an executive director, and it caught Eliza’s attention with its person-centered care approach. She has always believed in being “an advocate for self-advocacy.” She wanted to be part of an organization that was doing the work for the right reasons. She feels it is critical for people in her role to be doing this  – not for the hero complex of saving someone – but for the hope that they won’t need Eliza again. She was impressed with the grassroots structure of the organization, including the curriculum developed by inmates. 

Circling back to SuEllen Fried, the curriculum, affectionately known as “The Blue Book,” was developed by SuEllen and a member of the Lifer’s Club at the Kansas State Penitentiary. “The goal of the program is simple: to transform lives. To change deep down feelings of hopelessness, despair and disconnection to hope, affirmation, empathy and love. These are new emotions, totally foreign to most members until they’re able to confront and uncover them in themselves.”

Paired with The Blue Book, volunteers conduct weekly meetings to expose prisoners to the resources available. This program is now operating in every single Kansas Correctional Facility – for women and men. (It is also currently being expanded to North Carolina.) Rates of recidivism have dropped dramatically. The key to the work that Eliza and ROFW do is this: the why. What are the experiences that drive people to crime? What are the roots of violence? What are the resources necessary to divert criminal behavior? Eliza believes that those who are incarcerated must be humanized. She wants understanding of the road that leads to incarceration. Eliza and ROFW are paving that road with tools and people to help this population become contributing citizens. 

Featured in the March 23, 2024 issue of The Independent.
By Anne Potter Russ

Anne Potter Russ

Anne is thrilled to be working with The Independent again, and even happier to be with some great people. Having served as editor from 2005 to 2009, it is a pleasure to be able to connect with the readers of this timeless magazine. Anne and her husband, Norbert, live in south Leawood, and have two grown kids, Diana and Nick, as well as two rambunctious dogs.



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