May Community Game Changer
Lisa Calderon is building a safer community by helping former inmates successfully transition from jail
By Doug McPherson
Hope amid poverty. Hope amid homelessness. Hope amid violence.
Born to a 17-year-old-single mother and farm worker, Calderon spent her early years living in Denver housing projects, surviving on food stamps.
Here’s a scene from her early life: At age 5, she came home from playing outside and saw her mother — a victim of her abusive boyfriend — propped up by the refrigerator with a knife wound in her leg. “She talked to me calmly and tried to reassure me she was okay,” Calderon recalls, “but nothing prepares you for seeing your mother that way.”
Next to the distress in little Lisa, a resolve for a better life was growing. Yet it would take a while to bloom.
“My potential wasn’t really nourished in grade school, and I was on a path to continue this cycle — education or college wasn’t part of my outlook,” she says.
Calderon dropped out of Denver North High School at the beginning of her senior year. “My stepfather had kicked me out of the house … I became homeless. I couch-surfed with an older boyfriend who was physically abusive.”
She was at a crossroads — continue the cycle or break the cycle. A small flicker of resolve remained. “My mother and some teachers intervened, and I returned to school and graduated in 1986.”
With a little help, the resolve had taken root and began to flourish. She enrolled in MSU Denver. “That’s where I realized I could control my destiny,” Calderon says.
And what a destiny she has made for herself.
“She’s has a persevering nature; nothing is going to get in her way of helping the community,” says Joseph Sandoval, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at MSU Denver, who has known Calderon for 25 years. “She has a lot of talent and she’s not using [it] just for herself but for people who need her help.”
With encouragement from Sandoval and other MSU Denver professors, she attended and finished law school.
Today Calderon directs the Community Re-Entry Project, a partnership between the City of Denver and community organizations to assist people transitioning out of the Denver County Jail back into the community. The initiative provides education, employment workshops, housing assistance and emergency shelter, clothing vouchers, transportation assistance, mental health counseling and relapse prevention support to help individuals stay out of jail and lead productive lives.
“If we want to have safer communities, then we need to dedicate resources to helping folks once they get out [of jail],” Calderon explains. “Part of our program is looking at reducing recidivism — that cycle of going in and out of jail.”
“The violence I experienced growing up is one of the main reasons I do this work,” Calderon says. “People are in pain as victims and offenders. If we had resources back then to interrupt the violence, it would’ve prevented so much suffering in my family. Now I can use my experience and encourage them — let them know they’re capable of far more than they know.”
Calderon pauses for a moment, then adds, “I’m grateful every day I made it through and can help others make it through their own struggles. That’s the lens from which I do my work. It is a step every day toward healing the community.”
Content Provided By Metropolitan State University of Denver