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By Jeff Moreland
Following a string of events that have left some Willisburg residents concerned for their safety, a special meeting was held Monday to discuss the fears and concerns.
Shortly after the meeting began, it was announced that the R6 program, the mentoring program for men located at the former Willisburg school, will be leaving. Gary King, director of the R6 program, said the group will be gone by the end of August. King said he was not aware of any problems with the R6 program prior to the recent news, and added that the decision was made in mid July to close the program locally. The R6 program is a project under the guidance of the Kentucky Baptist Association from its Louisville offices.
“There were some things we thought we could do that we were not able to do. We see the amount of travel that’s involved in taking people to work, to and from hospitals and to and from court appointments. Gas prices have shot up, and we hoped to create some jobs on the property, but that hasn’t materialized, and it will be some time before it does,” King said.
With a crowd of more than 100 people in attendance at the meeting, King and Mark LePalme, director of the Isaiah House, which is also at the Willisburg school location, heard concerns of citizens who said they are scared in their own homes. Many in attendance reported seeing men from the programs walking drunk in the streets late at night, and others said they were approached on their own property. One woman said she was scared to work outside with her flowers because of men from the programs making remarks to her.
“I have not physically seen our men in the streets drunk. I’ve never seen anything like that, and I’ve never had a complaint,” King said. “I’ve had one or two e-mails that I’ve responded to and offered to meet with them, but no evidence was shown to me that this type of thing was going on. This was very surprising to me that they say they’ve been doing these things.”
King said he works out of Louisville, and is at the Willisburg location “two or three times a month.” He said he is in phone contact with the location “virtually every day.”
LePalme stressed that his Isaiah House and the R6 programs have very different operating policies and rules for their residents. Men in the Isaiah House are under supervision 24 hours a day, and he said any time they leave the property, they are accompanied by a staff member.
“All of our doors are locked at all times, and the only door anyone can go in and out at all is the front door,” LePalme said. “We lock the front door at 9 p.m., and nobody can go in and out of that door at all after that. We have our alarms on after 9:30 p.m., and we have lights out at 11 p.m.”
LePalme said a new policy has been added that in the event anyone leaves the property without permission and the supervision of a staff member, a call will be made immediately to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to notify them that someone is off the property. LePalme said about half of the men at the Isaiah House are court ordered, while the other half have voluntarily come to the facility. He stressed that for those who come voluntarily, he can call the sheriff, but nothing can legally be done to make the men stay at the location.
LePalme also heard questions from the members of the community, many asking how he would feel if something happened to one of the residents. Some in attendance expressed their fear, and said they would protect themselves if someone tried to break into their homes, and LePalme was clearly upset at the thought of something happening. He struggled with his emotions and fought back tears as he answered the questions.
“I’d feel just like I feel right now. I’d feel very bad,” he said. “I know security is a problem, and we’re going to work on that starting right now.”
LePalme said The Isaiah House is in need of board members, and members of the Willisburg City Commission, as well as the community, are welcome to be active with the group. LePalme said the board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Aug. 21 at The Isaiah House, and he would appreciate anyone who wants to be active on the board.
The news of the closing of the R6 program was welcomed by almost all in attendance. One woman, whose first name was Christine, but asked to have her last name not printed, said she is glad to hear of the closing. Her daughter has been a victim of one of the incidents involving an R6 member.
“I’m very satisfied that the R6 program is leaving,” she said. “I think the Isaiah House needs a lot more support, not just on a monetary level, but on a community level. I think the men that are court-ordered there, they shouldn’t have access to the community. If they are there on a voluntary basis, they see a self need, and they know they need help. They’ve gone there for help, and I think it’s acceptable to reach out to the community they’re in.”
She said she plans to take LePalme up on his offer for citizens to become involved and visit the Isaiah House.
“I plan to visit,” she added. “ I want to see what goes on first hand.”
Willisburg Mayor Bruce Welch said he felt the meeting was a success.
“I think we had a great dialogue. Both sides understood what needed to be done, and we know what they’re going to do,” he said. “I think most people here are very satisfied with the results we’ve heard tonight.”
Welch added that he expects the community to be more at ease after the meeting, but he said that ease will be even greater when the R6 program is gone from the community.
Sen. Dan Kelly of Springfield attended the meeting and helped to moderate the discussion. Welch said he appreciated Kelly’s involvement.
“I was sure thankful that Sen. Kelly was here,” he said. “People bring up all these things to do, but the city doesn’t have the authority to do some of those things. We don’t have the authority to ban anybody from this community.”
Kelly did point out that Willisburg does have options if problems persist. He said in the most extreme case, the city could reassert control over the facility by condemning the property as a last resort. In addition, he said the city could also bring action to the court system for nuisance under common law.
“It would take time for that to happen, and that would certainly be a last resort,” Kelly said. “I think what everybody is hoping is that the R6 program moving out and the Isaiah House tightening up security will resolve the situation.”
LePalme agreed, and said he is working on the security issues at the Isaiah House immediately.
“Security is the one word I heard loud and clear here tonight,” he said after the meeting. “We will be looking into our system and making some changes. Honestly, if I can’t protect the community, then we don’t need to be here.”