by Malaika Fraley
Andres Abarra has a prized possession he likes to show off to men and women recently released from jail: his Kaiser Permanente health plan ID.
For the Vallejo resident, the light-blue plastic card means more than having health care benefits for the first time in as long as he can remember. It represents gainful employment and second chances — things he prayed were attainable when he lived behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison and is now dedicated to helping others obtain.
“When I talk to brothers and sisters, the first thing I show them is my Kaiser card. I tell them you can have it, too. I tell them how,” said Abarra, who, at age 60, walks a path polar opposite from his life a decade ago.
These days, Abarra works two community-based jobs, and he recently finished a yearlong volunteer stint on the community advisory board for Contra Costa County’s public safety realignment plan, helping men and women coming out of the same jail in which he was locked away in the mid-1990s.
At LifeLong Medical Care office in San Pablo, Abarra promotes health and social services to low- and no-income patients and gives educational talks on topics such as HIV prevention and condom use at homeless shelters in the area.
At the Safe Return Project in Richmond, he researches issues that keep people from succeeding after being released from jail and advocates on their behalf. The group last year compelled the Richmond City Council to remove the criminal history box from city job applications, and earlier this month Abarra was in the state Capitol lobbying for an Assembly bill that would do the same statewide. It’s an issue close to his heart, having seen the difficulties for an ex-convict getting an honest job “over and over again.”
“For me, to be on an advisory board with a retired judge, working next to the district attorney or the sheriff when I have been in Martinez County Jail, that is a feat in itself,” Abarra said. “Going to Sacramento, going to Senate hearings, and know what they’re talking about? If you told me eight years ago that’s what I’d be doing, I would have introduced you to a good psychologist because I’d know you were crazy.”
Abarra has been arrested for drug-related offenses more times than he cares to count, the first time when he was 19 for being caught with two joints. He started smoking marijuana with friends growing up in the housing projects in Vallejo, Fairfield and North Richmond, eventually developing a cocaine addiction that cost him a marriage and harmed his relationship with his three children.
He quit using drugs in 2001, but he started to sell them. In 2004, he got caught and was sent to state prison for 16 months.
“Where I’m from, you hustle,” Abarra said. “I knew better, but I was broke. I was in survival mode.
“In prison, I made up my mind that when I got out of there, if God got me through it, I was going to walk right,” Abarra said. “I did, and I am.”
But not without some help. A skeptical sister in Pleasant Hill gave him a place to stay. The Temple Baptist Church in Richmond accepted him into its fold, and Abarra began supporting himself doing odd jobs for the Rev. Ronald Burris, the pastor’s mother and other church members.
Through the church, Abarra was recruited by the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization for the Healthy Richmond Initiative. The organization and partnering groups later started the Safe Return Project, signing on Abarra as one of its first employees.
“Andres really exemplifies the reality of redemption,” said Adam Krugge, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization executive director. “His story and journey, I think, really helped to provide a spiritual rounding for the work of the Safe Return Project.
“He’s a beautiful human being who shows that when you invest in people and give them opportunities, they can turn their lives around, something that makes our community a stronger and healthier place,” Krugge said.
Jessie Warner, re-entry coordinator for the Contra Costa Probation Department, said Abarra was a valuable addition to the community advisory board in his commitment to help former inmates succeed.
“I have a big place in my heart for the wonderful person who struggled in his own life and now has come to a place of strength and stability that he wants to share with others,” Warner said.
Abarra also advises people about reconnecting with their family, something he has worked hard to do since his own incarceration. Given the joy on his face when he received a call from his grandson on a recent day in San Pablo, it’s clear he’s succeeding at that, too.
“I always try to help cats mend their ways and get back to their families, but I tell them, you have to be patient,” Abarra said. “I knew that if I was going to succeed, I had to be patient. I was, and I tried and I tried, and now I work for two wonderful organizations.
“I want people to know that you can change,” Abarra said. “If you allow yourself to change, you will enjoy that change.”