Santa Rosa Junior College counselor Rhonda Findling with Apolinar Vega, a formerly incarcerated student Findling has helped through the Second Chance program. (Courtesy Second Chance)
Santa Rosa Junior College counselor Rhonda Findling with Apolinar Vega, a formerly incarcerated student Findling has helped through the Second Chance program. (Courtesy Second Chance)

Q&A: Child of survivors helps people transition from prison into college

Rhonda Findling, 59, has been a counselor at Santa Rosa Junior College for 23 years. For the past 15 years, she’s been involved with the community college’s Second Chance program, which helps formerly incarcerated students and has grown into the largest student group on campus; she’s been the program coordinator since 2018. Some classes are also offered inside the jail. Findling and her spouse have two young adult daughters. They live in Sebastopol.

J.: Tell me a bit about how the Second Chance program got started.

Rhonda Findling: I was a counselor in EOPS, Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, which is in every community college. It’s a program to help low-income and disadvantaged and poverty-level students; we provide them with extra counseling. From doing this work, we heard that the governing body of the community college system was expanding these kinds of services, and they put out a call for grants to 50 community colleges for a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated students. We applied and got the grant. This money goes to students who may need help buying their books, or maybe gas cards, so they have transportation to get to school. While we started as a club on campus in 2005, in the fall of 2018 we were given the green light to turn Second Chance into an official student services program.

How do you recruit students?

We have two jails in Sonoma County, and I go every week to the main one and maybe once a semester to the other one. I’ve got clearance to walk around unescorted, and they give me a roster of anyone who wants to learn about our program. I try to meet all of them. I am also connected with people who are on probation. We’re trying to build this pipeline from incarceration to college so people feel they have a place to go when they get out — to rebuild their lives, to have support and something positive to look forward to. About 300 students have gone through the program, and we have about 70 active members right now who receive grant money and show up for meetings.

Do you see much addiction among this population?

Ninety percent of them are addicts. They are trying to be clean and sober now, so we provide a lot of support for that. Each week we check in and see how everyone’s doing. The support is unbelievable. If someone says they’re having a bad time, everyone asks, ‘how can we support you’ or ‘have you tried this or that?’ There’s incredible love, caring, support. They haven’t had that in their lives before this. My goal is to be an environment of safety and nonjudgment, where people are not defined by what they did in their past. It’s about what they’re doing now, going forward.

Can you explain “imposter syndrome”?

When people come out of prison to a college campus, they can often feel, ‘what am I doing here?’ That’s imposter’s syndrome. They often think, ‘what am I doing in college, I’ve been locked up for years.’ But it’s amazing how they transform their lives. Once they get clean and sober, they become determined not to go back down that road. They find out who they really are and forget about what happened in there. A lot of them have anxiety, depression, ADHD or PTSD. That’s why they fell through the cracks in the first place. Most come from families of addiction and abuse or poverty themselves.

Can you give an example of a success story?

We have one young man who will soon graduate with dean’s honors. He grew up in a gang neighborhood in Santa Rosa. He was stabbed 18 times and left for dead and then was in a coma. Before he was discharged from the hospital, the nurses who brought him back to life told him they wanted him to visit after he got his college degree. The transformation I get to see is so beautiful, I can’t even explain it.

Your father was a Holocaust survivor, which you attribute as motivation for helping this population. Some might not understand the connection.

My father was a hidden child. He ended up in the Detroit foster system. He came from poverty, his mother was illiterate, and his dad was a day laborer, and they both were murdered. My dad had to do everything for himself. I saw him as a re-entry student and then, later, a law student. He worked at night, and we didn’t see him a lot because of that. But I saw our lives change drastically. I saw how education turned my own father’s life around, and now that’s my passion. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I feel a responsibility to make sure that people who are marginalized in society are helped and supported.

Debbie Findling, the senior philanthropic adviser at the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund, is quite well-known in the Jewish community. Any relation?

We’re first cousins. Our fathers were in hiding together, so they were very close.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."