Nonprofit founder helping offenders make it to college
Daniel Geiter speaks with Sister Susan Sanders at the center named in her honor in Chicago on Friday. ( Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune )
By Manya Brachear Pashman Chicago Tribune
For felon Daniel Geiter, mercy opened the door to his future.
If it hadn't been for a Roman Catholic Sister of Mercy who answered his cry for help eight years ago, Geiter believes he never would have had an opportunity to redeem himself.
Sister Susan Sanders, then vice president for mission at St. Xavier University, was the only college administrator to answer a mass email from Geiter, a St. Xavier student pleading for support.
On top of owing tuition at the private Catholic university, Geiter had fallen behind on his rent and his family of three faced eviction. His utilities had been shut off and, unable to afford bus fare, he was walking 4 miles a day to and from Blue Island to get to classes on the South Side campus. Dropping out seemed to be the only option. But Geiter couldn't bear the thought of another closed door.
"He was desperate for rent, desperate to continue, desperate to have someone hear him," Sanders recalled. "He was desperate for a future."
Sanders found a donor to cover the family's rent and utilities and got Geiter a job on campus.
But most important, she listened and recognized that Geiter's intentions were sincere. Not only did he want to earn a degree, he wanted to give back to society and help others who had made mistakes.
This Easter season — when Christians celebrate resurrection and rebirth — Geiter is giving 15 ex-offenders a similar chance at redemption, and also showing his gratitude for the woman he says changed his life.
Last month, Geiter opened the Susan M. Sanders Teaching and Learning Center inside the Lacuna Artists Loft in the Pilsen neighborhood. Named for his mentor and friend, the nonprofit founded by Geiter hosts five men and 10 women — all formerly incarcerated — who are finding hope as they prepare for what once seemed out of reach: a college education.
Sanders, 65, who now helps lead a regional office of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Omaha, Neb., on Good Friday visited the center conceived and run by Geiter to meet the first crop of students.
Fifteen more are expected to go through the program before the end of the year.
"What can be worse than being without hope?" Sanders said. "That's what Easter is all about. It's about hope in something you haven't seen. It's new life, resurrection."
Sanders gave that kind of hope to Geiter — who had been in and out of prison since he was a teenager and rejected from jobs because of his criminal record. He eventually turned to education as a way to create a better future for himself and set an example for his son. With Sanders' help, Geiter went on to earn a master's of liberal arts from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in higher education at Benedictine University.
Geiter said Sanders gave him a second chance at a life that almost went to waste.
"That simple act of mercy and kindness with no expectation of payment was enough to make me understand my experience and education is unique," Geiter said. "I know Sister Sue saved my life."
Now Geiter, 50, hopes to do the same for others like him.
At the center, students learn how to navigate the challenges facing ex-offenders. They are required to work 15 hours a week at a part-time job and another 15 hours taking classes free of charge. They work toward their GEDs or do what it takes to prepare for college or vocational degrees. Most of the instructors, including Geiter, are former offenders.
In addition to the 30 participants now enrolled in the program, more than 700 are on a waiting list. A separate group of students has started coming twice a week at 2:30 a.m. to work toward their GEDs.
Few teachers would schedule class before dawn to accommodate students' busy lives, but Geiter said that's the beauty of the center, which is designed to serve unconventional students.
"Everyone wants to make the round piece fit into the square hole," he said. "That's not how education works. Everyone needs a different kind of mercy."
Geiter's life of crime spanned almost two decades. At 15, he stole checks from a teacher's purse, forged them, cashed them and landed behind bars for theft and forgery. For the next 17 years, he continued to commit crimes of fraud, forgery and theft, serving time in most of the state's penitentiaries before he was 30.
When his last prison sentence ended in 1999, he vowed he wouldn't be back. He moved to Chicago from Champaign in 2007 when the business he and his wife owned went bankrupt.
In Chicago, he encountered common barriers that keep ex-offenders segregated from society. At the time, nearly 75 percent of affordable housing was off-limits to people with felony convictions, not to mention many jobs.
He was ineligible for most state professional licenses and got fired from a job as a dishwasher in a pizza parlor when his background check turned up a conviction.
He enrolled in a class at Moraine Valley Community College, where he met Sylvia Jenkins, then a professor and now the college president, who told him the path to redemption was paved by education.
"The more knowledge you have, that's something people can't take from you," Jenkins said in a recent interview. "Once you have that education and you're able to think and discern information for yourself, then the better off you will be."
After earning an associate degree at Moraine Valley and deciding he wanted to teach, Geiter was accepted at Chicago State University. But when a St. Xavier recruiter insisted that the school could help him get certified to teach sooner, he followed his calling there instead.
That decision changed the course of his life, because it led him to Sanders and Elijah Ward, then a professor of African-American studies who taught a class about the social construct of race.
Ward said Geiter constantly challenged him during lectures, often based on additional reading, and had an awareness of when issues of day-to-day life — transportation, finances, employment — were holding students back.
"He was constantly pointing out ways to me in which the institution actually thwarts the students' success, even though it's not its intention," said Ward, whose family's foundation is one of the primary financial backers of the center named for Sanders.
"He wanted the world to be accessible to each student."
Ward, who now serves as chief academic officer of the foundation and the center, said opening the center during the Lenten season, when Christians replicate Jesus' sacrifice leading up to Easter, has special significance.
"It's about a chance of becoming the person you know you could be, even though that may have seemed impossible previously," said Ward, who has designed the center's online platform for college preparation and rehabilitation. "It's someone holding out to you — or you holding out to others — the chance for rebirth."
Sanders, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, said she is humbled by the center's name. She insists she was simply living out the mission of the Sisters of Mercy when she took Geiter under her wing eight years ago and didn't do anything another sister wouldn't do. Geiter just "snitched on what I did for him," she said, jokingly referring to his public show of gratitude.
She didn't offer Geiter an education simply as a means to an end. Education "is about music, art, mind expansion and meeting new people," she said.
Education often focuses too much on professors, rules and institutions and not enough on students and life's fundamental questions, she said, adding that she gave more to Geiter than just financial support. She also offered — and gained — a friendship.
Students need to be reminded by their teachers that, regardless of how society treats them, they "have dignity and respect and talent."
"If the Sanders Center can do that for the men and women coming out of prison that need their perspective expanded in a way that's nurturing, that's fabulous."