Omaha reentry organization names new pantry after late Congressman Brad Ashford

A local non-profit honored the late Brad Ashford in a very special way.
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 9:43 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - LaVon Stennis-Williams knows first-hand that life after incarceration can be extremely difficult.

“I founded Reconnect in 2011, it was part of my second chance opportunity,” she says. “I was an attorney who went to prison, and when I came back home, I wish a program like this would’ve been available”

Reconnect Inc. helps those who have served time be prepared for life on the outside.

“We provide services such as helping them with life skills, how to engage back into the community, find employment, housing, and even family reunification, so we kind of do a one-stop-shop to help people get acclimated back in the community and back with their family once they’ve been incarcerated,” LaVon says. “What we call second chances are actually first chances for many people.”

It’s that message that resonated with Ann and Brad Ashford when they met LaVon several years ago.

“Brad believed so strongly in the justice system and what it can do right, and what it can do wrong, and trying to improve what it does wrong,” says Ann Ashford, Brad’s wife. “But he also believed that everybody has an opportunity, whether that’s an opportunity for the first chance or the second chance.”

Reconnect is one of the organizations where the late congressman would donate his time, energy, and resources.

“If you could put a face on the word giving, or passion, it would be Brad,” LaVon says. “That is what I’ll always remember, is how he really wanted to uplift people, and he did believe in second chances. I’m one of those relationships, I remember trying to explain my situation to him after I came home, and he said ‘that’s not necessary, you’ve done what you’re supposed to do, now let’s just go forward.’”

As Reconnect sees a growing need, they opened a pantry with clothing items and hygiene products.

“We are experiencing an increase in not just people who are incarcerated, but people struggling with employment, who are coming in for the basic needs. We don’t provide food, but they’re coming in for sanitary napkins, razors, or deodorant, and we couldn’t keep up with the need,” LaVon says.

After Brad’s passing, Ann and his family asked people to donate to his causes in his memory. Reconnect is one of them.

Wednesday, Ann brought hygiene products that were donated in Brad’s name to Reconnect.

“LaVon said ‘I have a surprise for you, but I also have to ask for your permission,” Ann recalls.

“Because of their belief in what we did, we asked Ann for approval to name our pantry after [Brad] because that would be the best way we could recognize his memory and to thank him and Ann for their years of support of our program,” says LaVon.

“I burst into tears because it was one of the most touching gestures, and something that is so meaningful to all of us and would’ve meant the world to him,” Ann says.

As the pantry continues to grow, LaVon’s goal is to encourage those who pass through to be like Brad, to be passionate and to follow through.

“I do want to empower every person who comes through this door to be like Brad Ashford.”

“It’s interesting, he never thought he was going to die,” Ann says. “But when you watch someone who is in the process of dying, they tend to shed the things that aren’t very important to them, and those things that are most important stay with them all the way to the end. What was most important to Brad, ended up being the justice system and making sure that it was working for everybody.”

Ann says after seeing the Brad Ashford Second Chance Pantry at Reconnect, she recognizes the good it will do for those most impacted and looking to move forward after being involved in the justice system.

“That was everything,” she says.

Before his death, former President Barack Obama sent Brad a letter as he battled brain cancer. Ann says he was in the hospital when she read the letter out loud to him. About halfway through, he realized who it was from.

“That was one of the few times, he never cried from sadness or from fear during this entire experience, but the things that touched him so deeply in his heart, and there was a number of other times when friends would reach out and it was just something that was so meaningful.”

Ann says Brad’s passing was met with endless support and kind words from friends, family, and strangers.

As we move forward within our daily lives, Ann says we should all be more like Brad.

“I want you to be open to others, I know that’s what he wanted. I want you to understand our history because we learn from our history and only then can we move forward and not make the same mistakes again, and I want you to really reach out to others, let them know you’re there to help, and then follow through with it.”

For information on how to support or donate to Reconnect Inc., you can visit their website here.

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